October 17, 2018 - 8:45am
By Jenn McGarrigle
For many students, the journey starts in VIU’s Adult Basic Education (ABE) program. Earth Science alum Rebecca Stirling is one of those students with an incredible story of resilience and determination to share that starts in ABE and leads to an Arctic adventure.
Rebecca Stirling will never forget the day when, lying immobile in a Victoria hospital bed, the nurse dialled her mother’s number and passed her the phone.
By this point, Stirling had been in hospital for several days after getting hit by a car in Nanaimo. She was struggling with how to tell her mother, who was thousands of miles away in Ontario, how serious her injuries were. The accident left her with a broken pelvis and some internal organ damage.
“I was terrified I’d never walk again,” she remembers. “Any time I lifted a toe or arm, I felt excruciating pain. I didn’t know what would happen to me.”
A Journey of Self-Discovery
While it felt like the end at the time, the accident ended up being a turning point for Stirling, who had moved to Nanaimo from Ontario when she turned 18. She was living in the Country Club area of the city and her friend would come home at lunchtime to wheel Stirling up a short hill to the library, where she would grab books to read while convalescing.
“I had lots of time on my hands to think about what I wanted to do and I realized that I loved to learn,” she says. “I would wheel myself home and sit on the deck for hours, reading stacks of books. I liked non-fiction, anything about geography or science-related.”
One book she kept coming back to described early explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. She put herself in the shoes of the explorers, imagining what it would have been like to go on those expeditions. The stories sparked a new desire in Stirling to have her own exploratory adventures.
“It was in that chair I realized that I wouldn’t fulfill any of my dreams without an education,” says Stirling.
Following her Passion
Over time, with the help of some intensive physiotherapy sessions, she was back on her feet. She plucked up the courage to enroll in Adult Basic Education (ABE) at VIU (then Malaspina University-College) so she could finish her high school diploma, as she left high school a couple courses shy of graduating.
“It went better than I ever could have imagined,” she remembers, although she struggled to pay her rent and living expenses as well as tuition.
She got through these struggles with support from people like her Chemistry teacher, Dr. Glenda Hunter, who often offered her a ride to work after class. She started making more connections at VIU when she happened on a Campus Recreation poster advertising weekly trips to different parts of Vancouver Island and signed up for some of them.
On an overnight hike to Mount Arrowsmith, one of her peers, who was studying geology, identified all the rocks the group encountered along the way. It blew Stirling’s mind. The next morning, when she woke up to a gorgeous pastel sunrise over the mountaintops, she resolved to continue on with her education that fall.
“Was I worried I wasn’t smart enough for university? Yes. But was I going to miss out on the skiing, paddling and caving trips? No. I knew that it was the right thing to do, and I knew if I didn’t do it then, it might not happen,” she explains. “I just decided to follow my passion. I had no idea what I was good at, I just knew I was interested in rocks and the natural environments around us.”
Working with Rocks
After finishing the ABE program, Stirling signed up for the Forestry diploma program. The following summer, she got an exciting job hiking around in the bush on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii as a silviculture summer student with Island Timberlands. But the forestry industry was crashing when she finished her diploma in 2008, so she pressed on with an Earth Science degree. By this time, Stirling was working for Campus Recreation, leading some of those trips that inspired her to continue with her education, as well as several other departments at VIU.
The day she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 2010, Stirling dropped her proud parents off at the Nanaimo Airport and headed straight up Island to begin working as a geologist for a consulting company.
“I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to work with rocks,” she remembers. “Eventually, I formed my own consulting company, doing work for junior mining companies and mom and pop prospectors, and realized I could really up my game if I had my next level of education.”
Stirling found her dream master’s program in the University of Waterloo’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, where she was accepted to join a team doing research in the Arctic.
“My advisor had several students apply to be part of the team and he told me the deciding factor that made me stand out was the reference letters from my VIU professors,” she says.
Earth Science Professor Dr. Steven Earle encouraged Stirling to go down this path. He says Stirling’s determination to succeed and her enthusiasm for the work made it easy to recommend her for grad school.
“We’ve kept in touch since she graduated and it’s become clear that her determination and enthusiasm have only grown,” he says. “Her success in both work and academics makes me proud to have been one of her mentors at VIU.”
Stirling is researching the diverse glacial geology south of Lac de Gras in the Northwest Territories. She is studying how glaciers moved over that landscape and how and where the material under glaciers was moved – research that will have implications for drift prospecting, a mineral prospecting technique that aims to stake out and follow a mineral trail. It also has implications for climate change research, in helping scientists predict future behaviour of glaciers.
Last July, Stirling spent three weeks in the field, hiking around in the Arctic tundra and collecting samples.
“It is a landscape I could never conceive of,” she says. “There’s no trees, nothing out there except gently rolling, glacial landforms that limit the distance you can see.”
Stirling finishes her master’s in September 2019, after which she hasn’t decided whether she will grow her consulting business, use her specialization to expand her career to water resource management or infrastructure development, or return to the forestry industry.
When she thinks back on the past 15 years, Stirling is grateful for discovering that passion for learning while wheelchair-bound, and for the inviting and welcoming environment VIU provided – both in class and through the many outdoor extra-curricular activities she participated in.
“It was a culmination of everything I have done, from when I started in ABE to when I decided to go back to school to do my master’s, that made me qualified to do what I am doing now,” she says. “From the beginning I persisted through constant doubts and difficulties without giving up, which inadvertently prepared me for the amazing adventures I’m having now.”
*This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of VIU Magazine. Check out more stories on the VIU Magazine webpage.