Jessica Vandenberghe honoured with an Indigenous Leadership Award

Urban-Systems-JessicaV-featuredOn February 1, Jessica Vandenberghe, Indigenous Community Consultant and Project Engineer at Urban Systems, was honoured by the Alberta Chamber of Resources with the Indigenous Resource Leadership Award, quite an accomplishment especially given she’s still “mid-career” and such recognition is often awarded later in one’s career. Freelance writer Cindy Hughes chatted with Jessica about what has brought her to where she is today and her desire to bring hope and be a catalyst for positive change in the world.

Cindy Hughes: Jessica can you tell us a bit about your background and how you chose engineering as a career?
Jessica Vandenberghe: I’m an Indigenous person who was adopted by a German family. They raised me as a farm girl in rural northern Alberta. As a kid, I initially wanted to be an artist or a musician, later switching that to a doctor. But in grade 11 an engineer came to talk to my chemistry class and opened my eyes to that career possibility. I studied hard—I was valedictorian of my grad class and was awarded many scholarships, and eventually completed two degrees from the University of Alberta—a BA in Chemical Engineering Co-op with Computer Process Control Specialization, and a Masters in Chemical and Mining Engineering. I was always very intentional about developing myself.

Urban-Systems-Jessica-PodiumCH: And after you graduated?
JV: I worked for just under 10 years as an oil sands research engineer, which led to me getting a number of patents. In 2012, I accepted a Director position with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) where I managed a team of people working with K to 12 school outreach, university outreach, diversity and inclusion and a variety of other things. We did such interesting things—I created a video game that was launched nationally to help kids be aware of what engineering is and that it is a good career choice, and I gave many talks on gender diversity and career path. In 2014, I went over to the regulatory side of things with APEGA. There were always fires to put out and people to lead and direct. Sometimes there were literally hundreds of phone calls a day. But being able to pick up and run with something is something that I am used to and like. I like to be challenged and I am competitive. I like to leave things better than when I found them and bring people along with me, so we can all learn together

CH: And what brought you to Urban Systems? What are you working on now?
JV: Diversity and inclusion is my passion. I wanted to get back to that and I was looking to make a difference to Canada’s Indigenous and rural communities. Urban really stood out to me—they run more like a law firm, you have the freedom to build your own practice and be an expert in whatever you want to be an expert in, so for me that is helping Indigenous communities. I am someone who likes freedom and a chance to figure out different problems in different ways. There is just so much that needs to be done. People are afraid to touch this area it seems; they don’t want to make it worse or offend anyone or don’t know how to approach this space. I’m very well connected and can navigate a lot of different spaces, and at Urban I have the freedom I need to do so. Now I have a number of clients that are mainly Indigenous communities. All have a different need and are in a different state, so I do everything from client development to leading projects that focus on communication, land use plans, community comprehensive plans, financial management and quality checks of other firms—the list goes on.

CH: You’ve achieved a lot in a short span of time. What motivates you?
JV: To be honest it hasn’t been an easy journey. I was often the only female engineer, and most of the time only Indigenous person in the room. Racism and bias—conscious or unconscious—is still a very real thing. But I feel that I am a living breathing example of the capability in Indigenous communities. That story needs to be told—here is an Indigenous woman who was always on the honor roll, has developed patents and gotten many awards and scholarships, and despite a sometimes difficult path, is a successful and happy person. Hopefully change will come with that. I do a lot of public speaking and like to share what I can about my story. I have found my biological family, and that’s part of what drives me and job too—the desire to connect directly with my biological heritage and help others on their journey.

Jessica with her children at the awards ceremony
CH: When you’re not working, what keeps you busy?
JV: Well, I live in Edmonton and I’ve built my own community here. I’m a connector and I like to bring people together. My kids are also a big part of my life—we go to the gym together, we go skiing, we love to be outside walking, biking camping and going to music festivals. I really just love adventure—in the past I’ve done skydiving, flyboarding, double black diamonds, ridden dog sleds and travelled all over the place. I’m also often volunteering and doing outreach talks.

Watch Jessica’s acceptance speech from the award ceremony.

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