Unleashing Students, Unburdening Families

Scholarship support extends beyond financial benefits

The odds of Mikala Dickson beginning her education degree at the University of Calgary last fall seemed, from the outside, abysmally stacked against her.

Starting in Grade 10, Dickson worked 25 hours a week at a dollar store near her home in Brandon, Man. Her dad, on extended medical leave for a heart condition, was unable to contribute to household finances and her mom, a dental assistant, needed consistent help with groceries and bills. Dickson’s younger brother, whom she’s particularly close to, struggled with debilitating anxiety and depression and, in 2016, her best friend committed suicide. They had planned to go to university together.

From a young age, Dickson had dreamed of becoming a teacher. Determined to succeed in spite of significant emotional and financial challenges, she graduated high school in June 2018 with a 98 per cent average. In August, she joined her older sister from Airdrie to begin her degree at the Werklund School of Education. Startlingly sunny and open, Dickson was, she says, “absolutely prepared to struggle.” Little did she know help was just around the corner.

Long-time UCalgary supporter David A. Bissett — member of the Order of Canada, recipient of the Alberta Order of Excellence and the founder of one of Calgary’s most successful investment firms — had recently made a gift to establish the prestigious David Bissett Award. The award consists of $10,000 bursaries for five first-year undergraduates, with preference given to supporting Indigenous students; the awards may be renewed in second, third and fourth year.

Mikala Dickson

“Things were very hard for a long time —  knowing there was someone out there to help me to take this journey without financial burden has changed my life.”  

 — Mikala Dickson, first-year undergraduate student, French, Faculty of Arts; and Education, Werklund School of Education

Two weeks before starting her courses, Dickson, who is Métis, got the call that she’d won the award. “I couldn’t speak, I just cried,” she says. The scholarship will cover her tuition and fees, and contribute to her living expenses.

“I want Mr. Bissett to know how much this has helped me,” says Dickson. “It changed my outlook — things were very hard for a long time, and I learned to get through one day at a time.” She says that knowing there was “someone out there who was willing help me to take this journey without financial burden” has changed her life. One of the best calls she’s ever made was to her mom to share the news. “She actually dropped the phone and it hung up,” says Dickson with a laugh. “She’d been so worried about how I would manage, and this gave her so much reassurance.”

First-year biological sciences student Jonas Stadfeld was likewise shocked and relieved to learn he’d won the David Bissett Award when he was in the campus bookstore, stumped by what resources he could perhaps do without for his courses. Stadfeld was inspired by his mother’s career (she’s a mental-health nurse) to strive to become a doctor. He says finances have been particularly difficult in his house since his child-support payments ran out when he turned 18 last year; the scholarship puts his goal into sharper focus.

“Now, I can concentrate on my studies and complete my undergraduate degree in four years, not five,” he says. “I can get essential volunteer experience over the summers, and I’ll have access to extra resources that will enrich my learning.” Just as important, he adds, “my mom and I have relief from constant financial tension in our relationship — this is a life-changing gift for both of us.”

Jonas Stadfeld

“Now, I can concentrate on my studies and complete my degree in four years, not five. And my mom and I have relief from constant financial tension — this is life-changing for both of us.”  

— Jonas Stadfeld, first-year undergraduate student, Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science  

David Bissett’s gift contributes to UCalgary’s Energize campaign, which is more than 90 per cent of the way to its $1.3-billion goal. The third-largest fundraising initiative in Canadian university history, the campaign fuels excellence in students and research, and strengthens community ties.