OKANAGAN - An Okanagan College student’s academic excellence and passion for international development has earned her one of the most esteemed fellowships in the country.
Karen Vandergaag, a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) Honours student at the Kelowna campus, is one of only 12 young adults across Canada to be awarded an International Youth Fellowship by the Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC).
“My goal has always been to utilize my business degree to find work in international development,” says Vandergaag. “To know that I have launched a future in this field before I’ve even graduated feels incredible.”
While her fellow students are walking across the stage at convocation ceremonies next month, Vandergaag will be in Ottawa for a management seminar with other fellowship recipients departing for international projects.
Vandergaag will be headed to Tanzania in August, where she will spend eight months working with CARE, an international NGO dedicated to disaster relief and fighting global poverty. Her work will revolve around research and project coordination with the organization’s Microfinance and Microenterprise arms.
Prior to enrolling at Okanagan College, Vandergaag’s interest in working abroad was kindled by a year-long Rotary exchange to Brazil in 2010. Another eye-opening opportunity came a couple of years later, when a College course in entrepreneurship in developing nations took her to Ethiopia and Malawi for several weeks.
“I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to put my education and research into practice on the ground and see how the hands on experience compares to academia,” says Vandergaag. “As a business student, I approach opportunities like this from a different perspective than students in similar positions who might hail from international relations, health, or other backgrounds.”
Vandergaag credits the College’s unique approach to business training as one of the factors that has opened to the door to international opportunities and inspired her to apply for the fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Okanagan College’s ability to broaden horizons and provide a wide base of options. I was able to pursue an Honours degree, travel abroad, be a member of an Enactus team that competed nationally, and secure co-op employment that connected me with local industry.”
“Securing this fellowship feels very validating of all the work I’ve put in, and the education I’ve received at the College.”
And while thinking globally, Vandergaag certainly hasn’t shied away from acting locally during her studies. As a student researcher with the Scotiabank Centre for Non-Profit Excellence located at the Kelowna campus, she helped to develop new curriculum that will assist local non-profits in the area of impact reporting and measurement. She also completed an Honours research project focused on food security in the Okanagan.
“I was looking for a research project that would have application beyond business to a broader social issue with local implications,” explains Vandergaag.
Collaborating with BC-based Urban Matters, a social innovation and development organization, she set out to explore the issue of local food sustainability and how people perceive and interpret food security in the region.
“Before I started I wasn’t aware of the sheer diversity of food security initiatives already going on in Kelowna,” she notes. “But through this research it was fascinating to look at the impact our choices have on our local food systems, what those systems are able to handle, and will be able to handle in the future.”
She recently presented her findings to the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council and continues to champion the cause of food security in the valley.
Following her fellowship abroad, Vandergaag has no specific plans for her next project, but is confident it will have something to do with social impact.
“I don’t see myself straying too far from the non-profit sector and social change/social impact initiatives,” she says. “That said, geographically speaking, that could take me anywhere. My horizons are completely open.”