When talking about minority representation in universities, engineering is one of the last places you normally find women, let alone Onkwehón:we women. However, Melanie Howard is turning things around.
The 48-year-old director and creator of the Aboriginal Access to Engineering (AAE) program, was awarded the very first 2020 Principal’s Indigenous Education Award from Queens University, in Ontario.
The award is part of a new category that aims to celebrate the impact on education and the creation of employment opportunities for young people.
“The broader goal was to increase the number of Indigenous engineers in Canada,” said Howard.
“That’s where I started all of it.”
Howard joined the Faculty of Engineering at Queens University in 2012 as the AAE director, with the task of reaching out and bringing in more Onkwehón:we students. Eight years later, she is well on her way to making a difference.
When Howard launched the program, the university had only three Onkwehón:we students. It now has more than 50 students from all over the country.
“What I strive to do is build a very supportive community for the students,” she said, “and we have been successful!”
Her position as the inaugural director of the AAE program is a mix of her own influences and experiences. Twenty-five years ago, Howard was hired as the first Onkwehón:we recruiter for Queens. She travelled to communities to meet with kids and talk about post-secondary options.
“In 1995, that was kind of cutting edge,” said the award recipient. “Because I’m Indigenous, it played a role.”
Howard grew up in and out of Kanesatake, depending on where her father, Ted, was employed. While Howard doesn’t have an academic background in engineering, her entire family is working in this field.
Howard credits her love for academia to her mother, Kanahstatsi, who worked in education as a first-language speaker in Kanesatake and Kahnawake. She followed her mother’s footsteps and taught at Rotiwennakehte Elementary School for nine years before relocating to Kingston in 2007.
She said that her teaching experience allowed her to see what was missing when it came to recruiting and engaging with future students.
She built the first phase of the AAE program, which encouraged her staff to visit Indigenous communities more than just once a year. She emphasized the importance of building and maintaining tangible and handson relationships.
“But even with the returning visits, once a month, it’s still not enough,” said Howard.
The second phase was launched in 2018 with the intention to train teachers during the visits to become comfortable with activities promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Howard also came up with the idea to create a series of five comic books. We’re Engineers aims at promoting careers in engineering. At the time, she was inspired by her own daughters, Aliya, 20, and Iris, 10, who were reading these types of books and saw the opportunity to introduce engineering in a fun way.
In collaboration with illustrator Peggy Collins, Howard based her heroes on real graduates from the program. She said they wrote the novels with an Onkwehón:we audience in mind and the intention to offer an equal representation.
When looking back at all her accomplishments, the director, who also co-chairs the Canadian Indigenous Advisory Council for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), said she’s most proud of the relationships she was able to build over the years.
She understands how being an Onkwehón:we student can be isolating. She explained the network she wants to continue to build through her program is starting to gain traction.
“We call ourselves Indigeneers,” she said, with a laugh.
Virginie Ann, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door