Sustainability studies bear fruit for ALES grad

Nikki Way with her mentor, Marc Dumouchel, outside the Students' Union Building

Nikki Way and Marc Dumouchel outside the Students’ Union Building (Photo: Trevor Chow-Fraser)

(Edmonton) “Ultimately, I didn’t want to look like a fool, so I just went at it.”

Nikki Way doesn’t like to sit around complaining from the sidelines. If she’s telling people that something needs to be done, she’ll feel like an idiot if she doesn’t step up to the plate. It’s the reason she cites for co-founding the highly successful on-campus Farmers’ Market in 2011.

“Nikki is one of those people who has an idea and she just goes and does it. She’s very much self-starting and self-motivated,” says Marc Dumouchel, general manager of the Students’ Union.

After five years in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, Way graduates June 2 as part of the first full cohort to complete theenvironmental studies degree program.

She says the experience establishing the Farmers’ Market in her freshman year was influential on the rest of her degree, for the confidence and practical insight it gave her and for the relationships she built with people like Dumouchel.

He met Way in her first semester as part of a community service-learning course taught by environment economist Brent Swallow. He was looking for someone interested in researching sustainable food options for the Students’ Union. He couldn’t have asked for a better applicant.

“Nikki was smart, politically engaged—her hair was a lot spikier back then—and she was highly motivated and great to work with,” Dumouchel recalls.

Coming into seed money

In community service-learning courses, students connect with partner organizations to complete 20 hours of work or research, gaining valuable real-world experience tied to their learning. It’s the kind of course that Way would have sought out immediately.

“I wanted to go to a big university with big ideas and tons of people doing interesting things,” she says.

That wish certainly panned out when she, Dumouchel and Swallow were given the chance to apply for a $20,000 grant through the CSL program. They applied with the idea of implementing her research project on farmers’ markets. But when they actually received the grant, they realized they could do much more.

The funding enabled them to kick-start the Sustainable Food Initiative. Suddenly, in her second year, Way found herself co-ordinating 70 CSL students. Together, they did all kinds of research, which is still being used today, and shepherded the Farmers’ Market through its first year. Swallow and Dumouchel helped apply for the grant, but it was Way who really ran with it.

“Nikki’s always been able to rally people around what she’s passionate about. I think she’s developed into a very good leader and helped others become leaders in their own way,” said Dumouchel.

Fertile ground for a successful career

Now with a permanent home in Sustain SU and support from the Office of Sustainability, the Farmers’ Market is a popular campus institution. Way moved on after two years to focus on her degree, which the Faculty of ALES allowed her to customize around “sustainable food systems.” She’s also one of the first to earn a Certificate in Sustainability, and she also managed to fit in a term on the Office of Sustainability Academic Advisory Committee.

Throughout the rest of her degree, she carried some important lessons from her mentorship with Dumouchel. She says he gave her invaluable insight into political realities and how to be pragmatic to make changes she wants to see stick.

“In the beginning I was much more naive. Maybe I had a streak of pragmatism that Marc brought out. But as I say, if you don’t have someone pragmatic in your life, it goes out of style,” says Way.

As she gets ready to graduate, she’s looking for policy work, hoping to continue down the road of developing pragmatic solutions to the big environmental problems facing Alberta.

“I’m an environmentalist and I’ve got my values, and those help me look at these tough issues in context. These are complicated conversations that we need to have—and I’m looking forward to them.”