How distance learning made STEM education dreams a reality
Transforming Lives: Learners of AU is an ongoing series where real students and alumni share how flexible online learning at Athabasca University made a difference in their lives and communities. Submit your story.
In 2007 my grandmother died of cancer, only a few days ahead of my Grade 12 graduation. My grandfather had passed away the year before, also from cancer. They were my primary providers, as my single mother depended on them for everything. Before they got sick, I had expected that I would live with them while going to college or university.
In high school, I believed that if I worked hard and did my best, I would receive fair compensation. I was an honour student and expected that this would continue into post-secondary, and lead to a reliable income.
Instead, I wandered from dead-end job to dead-end job trying to scrape together enough money to cover the next month’s rent.
Financial strain halts college attempts
I made a few attempts at college. I started an education degree at Red Deer Polytechnic while I lived with my mother. However, after only a few months, I ran out of money largely because I could not afford fuel to get to and from school. When the semester ended, I dropped out.
My next attempt at college was in the Donald School of Business. I remember feeling stressed about my budget. I could not afford rent, food, and tuition.
I remember scoring 90% on a statistics midterm but getting a 0% on the final exam. I didn’t even bother to show up. I’d given up.
No matter how hard I tried, no matter how hard I worked, it was never going to be enough. Rent took all of my money.
As the years went by, I accepted that my future would be different from what I had pictured. Whatever future I might’ve hoped for was being swallowed up and digested by rising costs in my life. It wasn’t long before I sought solace in partying and a lifestyle of debauchery. After being assaulted with a baseball bat, I decided to change my life. My future was still worth fighting for.
Getting a financial break
I got a job at a local oil and gas company and finally had some financial reprieve. I worked hard and I was paid fairly. I had a good relationship with all my coworkers. But I was laid off in 2016.
Thankfully, I had saved up enough money to cover the down payment on my first house, but it wasn’t long before rent and living expenses consumed my savings. The only job I could get was selling life insurance, where I was pushed and pressured into selling products to people who didn’t need them. If I didn’t make my sale quotas, I wouldn’t make enough to survive.
As a result, all my savings were gone, and I racked up $15,000 in debt. I remember standing in the front window of my house thinking about how tragic all of this was and then receiving an email from my former employer. The oil and gas company was willing to take me back.
Starting a family
I felt financial relief for several more years. I got married and we had our first son, Josiah. But I knew better than to count on oil and gas. I focused most of my energy on making YouTube videos and self-publishing a book. I thought it was only a matter of time before I’d be laid off again.
In 2019, COVID-19 hit and I was again laid off. This time I had a wife and a newborn son to take care of. We were at risk of houselessness when Red Deer Housing took us in. Now, I pay much less in rent for a 3-bedroom house.
With housing costs less of a concern, I thought I might have a chance at securing the education I had always wanted.
No Red Deer post-secondary offered degrees in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—without some kind of university transfer. Given the nightmare of unaffordable housing, I was not willing to risk a move to Calgary or Edmonton. Whatever degree I wanted to work for would have to be done in Red Deer, start to finish.
AU made education dreams possible
That’s when I found Athabasca University. Their Bachelor of Science Major in Applied Mathematics, with a minor in computer science, is the only distance learning program similar to the engineering degree I wanted. In some sense, together Red Deer Housing and Athabasca University feel like the last hope I have for a decent life.
Today, I have a 3.9 grade point average, which I work obsessively to maintain. We now have 2 kids, with a third on the way.
We cannot afford daycare, so I stay at home with the kids and study while my wife works. Athabasca University is the only reason this is possible.
Every day feels like I’m being guided by a lighthouse across a tumultuous ocean of dread. I sail on hoping that on the horizon I will find a decent job, a mortgage instead of rent payments, and a better future for my kids.
Transforming Lives: Learners of AU
Read more profiles of AU students and grads in our series Transforming Lives: Learners of AU.