A young immigrant and U of A undergraduate physiology student, Imani Murray moved to Canada when she was 12 years old. “Since being here in Canada, I never saw many other Black students, and also didn’t see myself reflected in the fields I was interested in,” she recalls. For Imani, an “ELITE” opportunity offered a chance to explore her area of interest, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), alongside passionately curious people like her.
Imani was one of 38 young Black students who explored opportunities to learn and grow in a unique University of Alberta (U of A) program supported by RBC. The Experiential Learning in Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (ELITE) Program, which is open to Black youth aged 15-22, offers hands-on learning and work-integrated training in STEM fields and entrepreneurship.
Tailoring mentorships and support to student needs
As paid interns, students work on projects over the span of 8 to 16 weeks, some of which included STEM work opportunities like additive manufacturing, medical image processing, vaccine development and MS research. Beyond the work experience, participants received training in entrepreneurship and wellness coaching to help them learn important coping skills.
The entrepreneurship component of the program was developed in partnership with Startup Edmonton and RBC, which also provided funding for the program that enriched these talented young Canadians.
Steering Council Co-Director, Health Sciences Program Lead, and University of Alberta Professor Adetola Adesida says the program stands out because, “The ELITE Program really does create an opportunity for Black youth to not only see other opportunities, but they can also experience them. And that’s a big difference.”
Opening doors to opportunity
“It was very nice to be a part of something like this and have other students who looked like me and had the same interests as me and build a community around that. I looked forward to work every single day because you never knew what else you’re going to learn and how it was just going to impact you,” Imani says, reflecting on the life-changing experience.
“ELITE has opened up so many doors that I never really thought possible,” Imani says. “It’s been a game-changer for me thus far, not just in terms of adding the experience to my resume but also the community of the other Black youth that I got to interact with and the different ideas about where I can go in my career.”
ELITE has opened up so many doors that I never really thought possible. It's been a game changer for me thus far — Imani Murray
Exploring new interests and career options
Imani’s peers experienced transformation, too. High school student Wisdom Sanouvi-Awoga says, “I don’t think I can thank them enough. They gave me the chance to do something productive over the summer, to learn about my own interests and figure out how I want to pave my future. They’ve really boosted my love for science and technology.”
I don't think I can thank them enough. They gave me the chance to do something productive over the summer, to learn about my own interests and figure out how I want to pave my future. They've really boosted my love for science and technology — Wisdom Sanouvi-Awoga
High school student Yanela Gonzalez Sanchez walked away with a vision for her future. “It really helped me make my decision about my career. I decided to go into pharmacology,” she announced. Also inspired, undergraduate engineering student Damola Akinola shared his story, “Before this program, I hadn’t been in any formal work experience … I got some programming experience, some testing experience and I got to know a lot about the brain.”
Some of the ELITE Program participants.
Educational experiences engineered for the future
André McDonald developed the ELITE program thinking about the barriers he faced, working part time while juggling a heavy university course load. Many of his colleagues had similar stories to share.
McDonald wanted to offer something different for today’s youth, explaining, “We’re teaching young people. We’re providing them with jobs and training that’s setting them up for professional fields of their choice, supporting their upward mobility, and reducing youth unemployment in Canada.”
André McDonald (pictured here) developed the ELITE program.
He points to the research on why paid internships are so important. “If you take a young person and you give them their first job, even before they graduate with a diploma, they will have a 50% higher chance of getting a better job for their next job. It really does pay off in dividends, big time.”
The calibre of applicants impressed McDonald and their employers. Internship host Keenan Pascal, CEO and co-founder of Token Naturals said, “ELITE Program interns are very impressive. Right from the off, they’re very well-rounded and open. You can see that they appreciate the time and effort the business is putting into them — so they’re very respectful on that side — and it shows how eager they are to get their hands dirty.”
Building bridges towards tomorrow
The reality is that Black youth face unique challenges. The ELITE Program for Black Youth delivers unique solutions and opportunities to develop the skills and gain the experience needed to push past systemic barriers towards success while building a supportive community. Resilient, skilled and empowered youth are the future of Canada’s workforce.
With the help of the University of Alberta and funders like RBC Future Launch, these youth are moving up and branching out towards a brighter tomorrow, with more job options and meaningful work experience. It was a summer of lessons to remember and an opportunity they will never forget.
Alison Tedford is a business consultant, author and member of Kwakiutl First Nation.
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