Growing up on a farm in northern Alberta, Jessica Vandenberghe had plenty of time to investigate how things work. What she didn’t have was much exposure to different professions. She had been leaning toward a medical career until an engineer visited her grade 11 chemistry class. “I had not heard of engineering before then,” she recalls. “Working with inanimate objects rather than working on people appealed to me.”
Vandenberghe brought no preconceptions about engineering to her studies, and maybe more important, she was undaunted by being among the few women and Indigenous students in her classes. Adopted during the
“Sixties Scoop” — a large-scale removal of Indigenous children and their subsequent adoption by predominantly white families in the 1960s — Vandenberghe was used to being different. “I was adopted into a German family,” she says. “It was pretty obvious I was visibly different from them. So going into engineering and being the only one wasn’t a new feeling for me. I had already built up the survival tactics unconsciously that helped me get through unfazed.”
On the farm Vandenberghe and her two brothers helped build and maintain various structures and machinery. Her father worked in construction and her mother believed in the importance of technology, teaching her children typing skills in between their chores. “She instilled in us this desire for continual learning,” says Vandenberghe. “Growing up in postwar Germany, my mother took the brave step of immigrating to Canada and becoming a farmer. She taught herself math, Spanish, and all sorts of things.”
“There's so much that I walk away with, like the Plains Cree foundational teaching of wahkohtowin, the idea we're all related, and the Seven Sacred Teachings ”
As Vandenberghe pursued undergraduate and master’s degrees, she considered different branches of engineering. She also explored her identity through courses in theology, anthropology, and mythology. “I believe in opening as many doors as you can for yourself,” she says. “University really opened my eyes to diversity because it’s like a little international city.”
After working nearly 10 years as senior research engineer for an oil sands operator, securing several patents as she investigated safe and ethical ways to extract oil, Vandenberghe joined the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta. There she helped launch a national guideline for parental leave transitions, influenced legislation and regulation change, and co-developed a video game where kids could experience what it’s like to be an engineer. “I’ve been intentional about moving my career toward incorporating my passions,” Vandenberghe explains. “For a long time, that meant moving toward equity and inclusion but now also includes truth and reconciliation. I was an Indigenous community consultant for a number of years, working directly with First Nations to be that bridge to bring projects to fruition for their community.”
As a university student, Vandenberghe began reconnecting with her Dene Tha’ heritage, but it was an often-overwhelming process. She had been told her birth family was dead, a common experience during this era of Canada’s adoption system. Having children herself motivated Vandenberghe to explore further — a motivation that deepened as she worked with tribal knowledge keepers. “There’s so much that I walk away with, like the Plains Cree foundational teaching of wahkohtowin, the idea we’re all related, and the Seven Sacred Teachings,” says Vandenberghe. “How do we measure the success of engineering projects and incorporate the medicine wheel teaching of balance? They all resonate with me in a way that I already knew these things — it’s just now named.”
Working both with local communities and international organizations, Vandenberghe has leveraged her experience to influence significant systemic changes. Now as assistant dean at the University of Alberta, she integrates Indigenous teachings into programs, such as Engineering Connects, where students bring social analysis tools to community-driven projects. “I’m incredibly proud to be assistant dean because it’s a recognition that the perception of the profession and of how success is measured has to shift,” says Vandenberghe. “I tell anybody the capabilities of our Indigenous students are huge. It’s breaking down barriers so they know they have circles of support. Whatever your passion is, you can make that happen with an engineering career.”
Throughout her career, Vandenberghe has embraced new experiences. She encourages students to overcome isolation by getting involved in extracurriculars and making friends beyond their area of study. “Find the courage to form new relationships and be your authentic self,” Vandenberghe advises. “I was in denial of my heritage for a long time, but if you can be proud of who you are from the beginning, your pride and community will help you be resilient enough to be successful in this career.”
Living on the land in northern Alberta, people of the Dene Tha’ First Nation have long excelled at hunting, trapping, and fishing — skills that have been passed on for untold generations. Year-round, hunters track moose, the most important animal in the Dene Tha’ diet.
For Dr. Christina Swindall, Gabrieleño, becoming a veterinarian was a childhood dream. She grew up in the Los Angeles area — the ancestral homeland. of her tribe — spending much of her time assisting her mother, who had been blind from the age of 14. In their home the health of family pets was not a priority — the animals weren’t spayed or neutered and didn’t see the vet when they were sick. Dr. Swindall knew that she wanted better outcomes for animals and focused her energy on becoming a vet.
She started undergrad at an affordable community college, then transferred to Boise State University and later earned a BS in biology. But when she applied to veterinary school, she didn’t get in. She moved back to LA, where waited tables to support herself and applied again the following year, without success. She then applied to Colorado State University and was accepted as an out-of-state student. The tuition was too high for her to afford, so she moved to Colorado, living there for a year so she could benefit from the in-state tuition rate, and reapplied. This time she had the success she needed to pursue her dream. After she graduated from veterinary school in 2002, Dr. Swindall and her husband moved back to LA, where she got a job at a busy animal hospital — the practice had nine doctors on staff and served a large number of animals. As a new graduate, Dr. Swindall found support and mentorship there that helped her quickly expand her skills.
But after a few years, she needed a change from the fast pace and high patient volume. “It got to where I couldn’t remember pets that had come in the day before,” she says. She made the move to Cypress Animal Hospital, a smaller practice with a family-centered pace that matches her style. Here she’s found the focus on more intimate care for patients rewarding. “I’ve worked with clients and their pets through the pet's whole lifetime now,” Dr. Swindall says, “from their first visit at eight weeks old through old age.”
In 2008 when the practice owner retired, Dr. Swindall bought the clinic together with the hospital administrator. “Now, not only am I my own boss,” she says, “but I have an asset that can help me in retirement.”
“This work is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Dr. Swindall says. “I like the variety — each day is different.”
The business has grown to 14 employees. “This work is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “I like the variety — each day is different.” On many of those days she has continual appointments ranging from wellness exams to vaccinations for newly adopted puppies. And then there are urgent-care cases. “When a pet is sick or injured, we often don’t know until the day of because our pets can't tell us they're feeling sick. Clients often don't know until the symptoms are more obvious,” she explains.
On some mornings she performs surgery — anything from neutering and spaying to dentals or tumor removals. “I love dental work in particular,” she says. “I’ve seen so many pets whose dental health has been neglected, and I’ve had to extract so many teeth. But it’s rewarding to see those pets feeling better within a couple days.” She’s also gratified to see thankful clients.
Dr. Swindall volunteers for her two sons’ Boy Scout troop and for her tribe, where she’s served as secretary for a decade. In addition to administrative duties, she has built a children’s council, created materials for teaching tribal history, and co-authored Toypurina: The Joan of Arc of California, a book about a heroine of the Gabrieleño people.
Teaching has been an increasing focus. “You don’t know what you’ll find while pursuing your goal,” she says. “The heroine of my book rose up to fight the mission system because she could no longer witness the oppression of her people.” Recently Dr. Swindall was picked to help build a course curriculum for her son’s high school under a new California law requiring all high schools to offer a one-semester course in ethnic studies. The course she’s helping to design covers challenges and prejudices that still exist, with a goal of building passion and respect in future students.
Dr. Swindall knows that education is just one vital element in perpetuating her tribe. “Finding STEM and other professionals to meet our tribe’s needs is another important task — archeologists and anthropologists, for example, are needed if we’re going to preserve our culture going forward,” she says. “Rebuilding our culture is a lifelong project, a vital commitment to keep our culture alive in our future … in our youth."
One of California’s mission tribes, the Gabrieleño, or Kizh (pronounced “Keech”) Nation, were among the Indigenous peoples enslaved and forced to build missions when the Spanish arrived in the area, starting in the 1700s. Like the Digueño and Luiseño, the name of the tribe came from the mission it built — for the Gabrieleño, it was the San Gabriel Mission. They were given the name “Kizh” because of the unique willow and tule branch dome-shaped homes they built.