As Andie Albert crosses the stage during fall convocation, it marks a significant milestone on a journey she once felt out of reach.
The thought of pursuing a master’s degree originally came with immense self-doubt. But Albert found her way, not only as a student, but as a valued contributor to the master of environment and sustainability program. As she leaves Western, her impact, as an active member of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, and as her community’s species at risk specialist, remains.
“I never thought I’d be at this point in my life, but I’m on a path,” Albert said, crediting many people for helping her on her academic journey.
First and foremost, her late grandfather. As an elder in her community, Albert sought his guidance after earning her diploma in chemical lab technology in 2018. The course of study had left her feeling misaligned with her core values and in her relationship with the land.
“Just before my grandpa passed, I told him I was so confused and unhappy with my life path,” she said. As he lay in a hospital bed, she showed him brochures for different schools and programs she was considering. “He told me, ‘You’re going to do environmental science and you’re going to save the world.’”
With that, Albert headed to Redeemer University, in Ancaster, Ont., where she earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science.
“I loved every single minute of it,” Albert said of the experience, which included an internship she fulfilled working in her home community under the guidance and support of Kelly Riley, director of Treaties, Land and Environment, Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.
It was Riley who encouraged Albert to use the opportunity to stay true to her passions.
“As a kid, I loved going out and looking for turtles and salamanders and picking up snakes,” Albert said.
So began her journey towards her current role as her community’s species at risk specialist. Her internship led to a full-time position she’s held even as she’s completed her accelerated master’s degree in environment and sustainability at Western.
“I started my job as a ‘little baby environmental science student,’ she said. “And now I’ve moved forward to manage a massive species at risk program that I’m doing with my First Nations community.”
One of the favourite aspects of her job is working with spiny softshell turtles, which are currently listed as an endangered species in Canada.
“They are very rare for Ontario, but we have three nesting spots along the Thames River within Chippewa,” Albert said.
Laid on the eroding riverbanks, the eggs are at risk from the natural elements and predators.
“If the eggs are left out there, very few of them make it, but by working with the Upper Thames Conservation Authority, who incubate the eggs for us, we increase their chance of survival,” Albert said. “Once they incubate, they bring the eggs back to us and we release them.”
“Being First Nation from Chippewa, and being on Turtle Island, I base a lot of my work around turtles. It’s very humbling to release them and watch these turtles go off into the circle of life, and to engage with others about turtle protection, animal care and the traditional knowledge behind turtles.”
Through her master’s internship, Albert expanded her work to include tracking migratory birds, a project that included a “lot of 4:00 a.m. mornings.” As she continues to address her community’s needs, she’s broadened her expertise.
“Since my undergrad, I’ve tried to learn five new birds and two new plants and trees per summer. You can’t know it all at once, but you can learn.”
Despite feeling confident at home in her job, aligned within nature, when it came to furthering studies in her field, Albert faced moments of uncertainty as a first-generation postsecondary student.
“When I applied for my master’s degree, even though I had good grades, I still had self-doubt,” she said. “As a First Nations student, I just didn’t know if I was prepared for an education founded on a colonial mindset. But a friend encouraged me to apply. I got in and my whole family celebrated for an entire week.
“That was just the start of it. Then it was doing the all the work to complete the degree.”
“Just getting into this program was a massive achievement in my life. By finishing it and earning my master’s and by being the first in my family to do so, I hope to show other kids on my reserve it’s possible to do your undergrad and to get a master’s degree. And, to also include Indigenous knowledge in all that you do.”
Albert credits the administrators of the MES program for helping her find her way. In particular, cooperative education coordinator and industry liaison Pamela Doxtator.
“Pamela was my champion multiple times throughout this journey,” Albert said. “She helped me with personal issues and spoke with me about the pros and cons of some professional opportunities. She was always there to talk with me. If she hadn’t been there, I don’t know if I’d have been able to complete my degree.”
What Doxtator saw was Albert’s strengths and the unique contributions she brought to the program.
“Andie is a dedicated mentor and partner with the MES program, sharing her experience and Indigenous perspectives on relationship to land, culture, storytelling and healing,” Doxtator said. “Students truly appreciate Andie’s teaching and embrace an understanding of a two-eyed seeing approach in caring for the environment, engaging in meaningful consultations and moving forward in their career journey with a commitment to reconciliation and allyship.”
Finding her calling, through a two-eyed approach
Albert felt it was important to share her Indigenous perspective during class discussions and found MES program director Paul Mensink to be a supportive ally.
“Paul was so willing to learn, listen and engage and to understand more about things like Indigenous consultation,” she said.
“I’m super happy this is the program I chose and for being able to talk to some of my classmates about Indigenous issues, jurisdictions and regulations even if it was a hot topic in some of my classes. I saw it as my true calling to bring that lens. We’d talk about things like consultation and the struggles that can happen on both sides between First Nations and non-Indigenous consultants. Having the freedom to speak was extremely rewarding.”
Mensink said he’s grateful to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from Albert during her time at Western.
“Andie showed us the beauty of Indigenous traditions and graciously shared her deeply moving story that celebrated the richness of Indigenous culture while highlighting the daily challenges and historical hardships that Indigenous communities endure. Her perspective and contributions will resonate with our program and its students for years to come,” he said.
Albert is excited by her future, and hopes to one day pursue a PhD, focused on optimizing Indigenous knowledge with the environment.
In the meantime, she’s happy to continue her work in her community.
“I love my job,” she said, content to keep on learning “one day at a time, one species at a time.”