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ELITE program student Severino Asumu, Professor Sedami Gnidehou, student Yanela Gonzalez Sanchez, Professor André McDonald and student Imani Murray

(From left) ELITE program student Severino Asumu, Professor Sedami Gnidehou, student Yanela Gonzalez Sanchez, Professor André McDonald and student Imani Murray. The program provides paid internships for Black high-school and undergraduate students to gain hands-on experience in STEM fields, learn entrepreneurial skills and receive wellness coaching. (Photo: Ryan Whitefield)

In high school, Imani Murray fell in love with the brain. Next, she set her sights on pursuing her dream career: becoming a neurosurgeon.

Now a physiology student in her third year at the University of Alberta, Murray is putting her passion and studies into practice for the first time – and growing in more ways than she could have expected – thanks to a new internship program based at the U of A.

Launched this summer, the Experiential Learning in Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (ELITE) Program for Black Youth has placed 38 high school and undergraduate students, including Murray, in paid internships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and business fields. ELITE received funding from the RBC Foundation with matching support from Future Skills Centre and the government of Canada to kickstart the first year of the program.

In May, Murray began her internship placement as a research assistant at the U of A’s Neuromuscular Control & Biomechanics Laboratory. She’s working alongside a multidisciplinary team developing a wearable sensor to help people living with multiple sclerosis receive treatment remotely. She loves being able to apply her physiology knowledge in a way that makes a difference to real people.

“It just feels really good to put what I’m learning into practice,” Murray said. “It’s encouraging to have a reminder why I’m studying what I’m studying.”

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Students dream about hands-on experiences like these. With so many eager, qualified students applying for them, it can be very competitive. So Murray jumped at the chance to participate in a program designed by Black STEM professionals and education experts for Black students. She was thrilled to be selected – ELITE was only able to accept 31 percent of students who applied to the program this year.

Murray’s parents have always enthusiastically encouraged her to pursue her goals. But as an aspiring doctor, she has had few Black role models to look to for inspiration. She said she has never had a person of colour as a teacher since moving from Jamaica to Edmonton in junior high, and when she goes to the doctor, the person treating her rarely ever looks like her. It has been hard to see herself represented in the scientific and medical career she’s pursuing; much of her inspiration has had to come from her own resolve.

“Resilience has always been something that has been instilled in me. I think my parents being immigrants has a huge role to play in that. It’s always been, ‘Work hard, and you’ll see the results that you want to see,’” Murray said.

ELITE program director André McDonald, a professor in the U of A’s Faculty of Engineering, knows that structural barriers such as a lack of diverse advocates can prevent Black students from studying STEM and business and from retaining sustainable careers in those fields. Yet what inspired him most to launch ELITE was what he calls the “mental barrier” facing Black students.

“Someone can always work hard and come up with creative strategies to overcome systemic barriers,” McDonald said. “But if you, yourself, don’t think you can do it, forget about it. You won’t even apply to a technology school, much less a four-year post-secondary educational institution.”

McDonald knows first-hand the importance of advocacy, both academically and professionally. While he had strong professional advocates within his specific academic field of heat transfer, he struggled to find guidance in other important elements of building a long-term career, such as networking or bridging his research with entrepreneurship.

“I wondered things like, ‘Should I do this as a business?’ or ‘What does this mean for my career if I go in this direction?’” McDonald said. “I wanted to change that for students and, at the very least, to give them some tools to develop the questions to ask.”

That’s why ELITE goes beyond the typical internship program’s structure of placing students in summer jobs. Throughout the eight- to 16-week program, students also receive group and one-on-one wellness coaching through a series developed by educational psychology professor Sophie Yohani and ELITE’s steering council. In collaboration with Startup Edmonton, students learn entrepreneurial skills – from planning to financing a new business – in the ELITE program’s Entrepreneurship Design Series. Acknowledging language diversity in the Black community and across the U of A campus, the ELITE program is English-French bilingual, with francophone engagement and activities led by Campus Saint-Jean medical microbiology professor Sedami Gnidehou.

For Tinashe Muzah, a third-year finance student in the U of A’s Alberta School of Business placed at Sysco Canada, a highlight has been connecting with other students and the encouragement from the program’s steering council.

“It’s really cool to be in this environment where you’re surrounded by other Black associates who are also working towards their own success,” said Muzah, an aspiring lawyer. “It’s definitely something I haven’t had before: mentors who understand the specific nuances of the Black experience in a professional sense.”

Murray and Muzah have both learned skills from provisional psychologist Mary Etem Mbiatem through the wellness seminars, such as taking a moment to root their feet to the floor, checking in with their bodies or identifying areas of imbalance in their lives.

“As students, we’re often so caught up in being resilient and trying to do everything that we possibly can to achieve our goals that we sometimes neglect our own health and our own well-being,” Murray said. “To have this element offered alongside this amazing internship opened up an avenue for me to find out more about myself and grow in ways that I’ve neglected a little bit.”

Learning to balance her drive with her self-care is a skill Murray said she plans to carry throughout her path pursuing medicine – one she acknowledges will be long, interesting and challenging. Now, she feels even more prepared to tackle it.

“Especially in this past year, we’ve seen the need for proper representation because we’ve seen what happens when we fail to do that,” she said. “That also pushes me – I have to do right by the future of Black women who will be pursuing similar goals.”

| By Kate Black

Kate is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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