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Scholarship winner Stephanie Potter hopes to empower minority groups

Esri Canada's GIS scholarships recognize strong, multi-disciplinary geospatial programs and each cohort of winners includes students with a broad range of research interests. But even in that diverse group, the 2019 recipient from Lakehead University, Stephanie Potter, stands out. Having completed a double degree, one an Honours Bachelor of Outdoor Recreation with a minor in Women's Studies and the other a Bachelor of Arts in Geography, she is currently enrolled in the Master of Environmental Studies program. Find out what connections she made among these different programs and how Stephanie hopes to use her skills and knowledge to empower others.

Esri Canada GIS scholarships are given out on an ongoing basis but Stephanie Potter was one of the first to receive a 2019 Esri Canada GIS scholarship. After reading her resume and online portfolio, I was inspired by her leadership philosophy and intrigued by how she had combined seemingly very different programs. I reached out to her via email to find out more about both.

You accomplished a lot during the four years of your undergraduate program. Can you tell me how and why you decided to do a double degree?

I graduated from Lakehead University in 2017 with an Honours Bachelor of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism (ORPT), with a minor in Women’s Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and the Environment and a Certificate in Geomatics and GIS. With a love for the outdoors, ORPT was a pretty easy decision for me. However, I also wanted to broaden my education and explore some of my other interests, which led to the double degree with Geography and the Environment. I think I owe a lot of thanks to my grade 11 geography teacher for inspiring my interest in human geography – thank you Mme Bédard! Then, a class discussion early on in a first-year course made a direct link to women’s studies and led me to pursue a minor with that department.

At first look it seems like a bit of a funny combination, but they were all incredibly well connected, which I discovered more and more each year. My passions lie in the outdoors and in helping others (social justice), especially in these fields. These passions led me to embark on those degrees, which were completed through careful course planning and hard work!

Outdoor recreation doesn't typically come to mind when people think about university. Can you tell me more about the ORPT program?

ORPT weaves together three key streams: leadership, parks, and tourism, in a very theoretical/academic way, with field experiences to apply our classroom learning to the real world. While all students explore these three streams, I focused more on parks and protected areas management, an area that I was inspired to delve into, and one I’ve been drawn to more and more, because I’ve lived and worked in Jasper National Park every summer since 2013. My degree in ORPT gave me the perfect foundation to pursue my masters in Environmental Studies.

You said it was a first-year course in ORPT that led you to Women's Studies. Which course was it and what connections do you see?

The course was Group Dynamics. I had my eyes opened to the multitude of factors that impact the way groups function and are affected by each other, which included hegemony, meaning one group’s dominance over another. Over the next four years, I came to understand that “Women’s Studies” is grounded in a much broader foundation of social justice. It doesn’t just mean “justice for women,” as it is often perceived. It’s about deconstructing systemic barriers to find social justice for all peoples, not just one group of women.

Every one of us is affected by what’s called our “social location,” which is defined by characteristics such as gender, race, social class, age, ability, religion, geographic location, and drastically impacts our position in society. What’s so important is that these aren’t characteristics that an individual can control, but rather are social systems that shape one’s experience in the world. As it relates to outdoor recreation, people with different social locations experience the outdoors very differently from one another. I could go on about this forever, but for me, I have been the most inspired to work with, and hopefully empower, women, new Canadians, and Indigenous peoples, through the outdoors/parks and protected areas.

Among the many courses you've taken, two that stood out for me are “Ecofeminism” and “Consuming Women”. What are they about?

“Ecofeminism” explores relationships between women and the environment (again, it is about how people of different social locations are affected differently). “Consuming Women” explores how our western society is wired to “consume” the female body. For example, consider how women’s bodies are used to sell everything from cars to hamburgers! A car is somehow considered more appealing if it is pictured beside an attractive woman. Similarly, a hamburger tastes better when an attractive woman is shown eating it – except when it is being marketed as “man food.”

How are such courses related to a course like Sea Kayaking?

My sea kayaking course is all about applying leadership theory in practice, throughout the planning and preparation that takes place over a whole semester and the trip itself, which is 12 days on Lake Superior from Red Rock to Silver Harbour. Again, driven by my passions, this was a time for me to practice being a leader, with a careful eye to gendered group dynamics. For example, how can you lead a group to empower peoples of all genders, shapes, sizes, and abilities to feel like they’re an equally contributing group member, and break down expectations of everyone being able to lift a heavy sea kayak on their own? Or who does the cooking and dishes versus lighting the camp stove? Individuals and groups are shaped by these assumptions and often aren’t even aware of their impact.

All of this also ties into geography and GIS, from gaining an understanding of weather patterns that can be used in the field when leading a group, to working with maps and navigation. GIS work is also a space through which I can communicate ideas, like how the locations of Canada’s national parks create a barrier to new Canadians’ participation in these spaces.

In short, each piece of my undergrad supported another, and has come together in a way that helps me apply and communicate both my passion for the outdoors and empowering minority groups.

Part of Stephanie’s undergraduate work involved analyzing the costs of travelling from major cities, such as Vancouver, to national parks in Alberta and British Columbia, and to help new Canadians find the most cost-efficient means to access these spaces. 

The project you mentioned, and submitted for the scholarship, on barriers to accessing national parks focuses on new Canadians, but arguably most of the parks are equally difficult to access for all kinds of people. Why do you feel it is important to target new Canadians?

New Canadians are significantly underrepresented as visitors to Canada’s national parks due to many barriers that inhibit their participation. There are many other groups in Canada that face similar barriers to accessing these protected spaces; however, my focus was on new Canadians for this project because Parks Canada identifies new Canadians as a target audience.

Part of my research examines the compounding factors and shows that often new Canadians are at a disadvantage from the start. (Remember the discussion about social location!). The marginality hypothesis suggests that minority groups suffer from historical patterns of discrimination that result primarily in economic disadvantages, and that further inhibits their participation in outdoor recreation because of the cost of participation, limited means of transportation, lack of information, and other barriers.

Despite having a higher level of education, many new Canadians are underemployed and are faced with additional challenges such as language barriers.  Moreover, as Canada becomes more highly-urbanized, where nearly half of the country’s population resides within the greater Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary/Edmonton areas, and 95 percent of new Canadians settle there, the barriers to accessing parks increase. As the distance from national parks increases, so does the cost of transportation and the need for overnight accommodation, often making travel to these protected areas impossible for new Canadians.

While there are many other contributing factors that affect new Canadians and people of many other social locations, the cost and travel associated with accessing Canada’s national parks has so far been my focus. This has led to a series of papers and mapping projects, culminating in the one I submitted for my scholarship. This area of study continues to inspire me, and I would like to continue to study it and communicate about it using maps and other products.

The scholarship includes software and other resources to help you continue your studies. Is there any part of the scholarship award that you are most looking forward to using?

I’m thrilled about every part of it, but especially excited about the training opportunities. I need to always be learning and there are so many aspects of GIS that I have just grazed the surface of. While Esri offers some fantastic freely-available training (I’m currently participating in the Cartography MOOC), I am looking forward to having the licensing to enable my participating in other courses, including ones that I couldn’t afford to take on my own.

You’ve just started your Master’s in Environmental Studies. Do you already have a thesis project?

Yes! In brief, my thesis is titled Towards Marine Tourism Management Recommendations for the Franklin Wreck Sites. I am working to develop context-specific tourism management recommendations for the Franklin wreck sites to help address concerns related to increasing cruise and yacht tourism in the Northwest Passage. This project incorporates parks management and Indigenous peoples, following the underlying theme of my schooling and work.

You included your leadership philosophy in your online portfolio. What made you feel it was important to articulate it?

While leadership is a concept/theory/practice that is often picked apart in both academic and professional outdoor settings, I think it’s equally important in every other professional world. My leadership philosophy is one that I feel reflects my personality and what I strive to be in outdoor settings, office settings, and many others in between. Because I have, and continue to seek, work in positions that include outdoor leadership and GIS related fields, it is important to me to highlight who I strive to be in these connected worlds.

Can you give any examples of when you’ve been able to put it into practice?

One example was while leading a first-year canoe trip for ORPT. A large part of the three-day trip (and the course overall) is to become proficient in navigation by map and compass. In Northern Ontario, we are surrounded by seemingly endless lake and river systems. When out on the water, navigating by map and compass can be challenging, especially when islands and surrounding shorelines seem to blend into one. For many first-year students, finding their way along a planned route can be quite a challenge. Navigation is a skill best learned by practice and, sometimes, mistakes. While leading these trips, I always keep an eye on the map to know where we are for safety, but let the students take the lead on navigating. I give them the time to struggle and figure it out. I’m always there to provide support when needed, usually through guiding questions, but I do my best to let students discover the process on their own and when we get to camp, look back on having done it themselves.

Stephanie’s approach to leadership is to try to guide the group, such as first-year students on a canoe trip, so that they get the most out of the experience.

What do you see yourself doing after graduation?

I’m not 100% sure! My passions lie in social justice/empowering minority groups, the outdoors/parks and protected areas, and GIS, and I’m still learning how I can pull these all together. While parks management is the area I’m currently working towards, I remain very open to all types of opportunities. This summer I’m thrilled to be working part-time in GIS for Lake Louise, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks while I chip away at my thesis. I try to open doors that may lead to new opportunities, so who knows what those might be in a year’s time.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins