Engineering grad ‘just kept climbing’ to reach success

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About a year into her internship, and some 80 feet up in the air, Katrina Petahtegoose had a revelation.

“I discovered I have a fear of heights. But I went for it anyway. I just kept climbing,” she said.

The same tenacity that saw her scale scaffolding high above the ground as part of her work placement at Imperial Oil also helped her overcome many challenges in the final year of her Chemical Engineering degree.

On June 19, Petahtegoose will join more than 300,000 Western alumni living around the world as a newly minted graduate and member of the Western Class of 2020.

Scoring the internship was a dream come true. “I almost didn’t get it. There were 500 candidates for 33 positions. I was number 34,” she laughed.

Although discouraged, Petahtegoose, BESC’20, kept her head up, having applied for more than 50 internships and landing more than 10 interviews.

Then, an unexpected phone call brought good news.

“It was Imperial Oil,” Petahtegoose said. “Turned out one of their Sarnia sites forgot to list their position, and they wanted to know if I was still available. I nearly cried; I was so happy.”

Her father joined her on the move to Sarnia, as she knew it would be easier to monitor his long-term health issues, diet and medications. “Family means a lot to me,” the former Leamington resident explained.

Three months into her 16-month internship, her father suffered a stroke.

“It was one of the most difficult times of my life,” Petahtegoose said. “The plant was undergoing a turnaround at that time, and maintenance was being done on one of the units I supported. I was asked to take on a supervisory role doing safety checks and other tasks, working long hours.

“In the middle of that, I was leaving work on my lunch, running to the hospital and sitting with my dad, or meeting with his doctor, speech therapist and physiotherapist. It was really tough.”

She made it through, and so did her dad, both returning to separate homes in London once her internship was over, with Petahtegoose checking in with groceries and medication regularly.

But there were more mountains ahead.

“My final year was my hardest. So many big life moments came my way that the average 22-year-old student doesn’t have to face. My dad had another minor stroke in January. At the same time, I was also going through a divorce.

She continued, “I got married in first year. It didn’t work out. So now here I was in my final, and my husband and I called it off. There was a lot of change, a lot of things going on, taking my dad to appointments on top of an engineering work load and the responsibilities around my capstone (project).”

The added stress meant pulling back on activities, including volunteering with Women in Engineering, the Indigenous Students Association, the Indigenous Leadership Program and as a student tutor.

Petahtegoose also served as both a delegate and panelist for the Conference on Diversity in Engineering, an initiative, that, “hits home.”

Since 2015, she only came across two other Indigenous students in Engineering. That’s pretty alarming, she explained.

“That’s personal for me. I’m in engineering. I’m a girl. And I’m Indigenous,” she said, noting a part of her heritage left unexplored until she came to Western. “Some of my best and happiest times were spent at the Indigenous Student Centre. It was my home away from home. When I struggled with school, going there helped me see it’s normal to feel stressed out, and they would tell me, ‘You will get through this.’”

Get through it, she did, landing the 2019-20 Marvin DeVries Engineering Award, and a full-time job as a technical contact engineer at Imperial Oil come September.

“Everything I wanted and worked for is actually happening,” Petahtegoose said, with her long-term sights set on rising to the top of her industry. “I’m eager to learn, be more hands-on and get comfortable. I want to become someone that is really knowledgeable about their field, and hopefully, one day, be seen as an expert.”

She also hopes to be an example for others, particularly for people from diverse backgrounds interested in science, technology, engineering and math.

“I want them to see they can do it, it can be done, and let them know it’s possible.”