Grace Dunn, second-year neuroscience student
My original plan was to work with people who have had brain injuries. But working over the summer, I learned how much working with kids energizes me.

Second-year neuroscience student Grace Dunn chose the U of L for its class sizes and world-renowned neuroscience program. The Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN) is located right on campus. At the CCBN, students have the opportunity to work with professors recognized across the country for their contribution to neuroscience. After moving from Quesnel BC (near Prince George and Barkerville), a small city of just over 23 000 people, Grace did not shy away from opportunity, hitting the ground running as soon as she came to campus. Immediately signing up for the co-op program was one of her best decisions and as a co-op student, she landed a work term for the very next summer, right in her field of interest.

Last summer, Grace worked as a camp counsellor at Camp Amicus in Calgary, a program for children and teens with ADHD or learning disabilities (LDs), frequently accompanied by other disabilities and conditions such as autism and depression. Being the youngest counsellor and a new team member came with several challenges. “I was the youngest staff member. I was eighteen that summer. Everyone else was in their twenties at least,” Grace divulged. “Becoming an authority figure was a little difficult at first because I felt like I was still so young. I found it challenging to take charge of these little kids who wanted to run around,” she explained. For Grace, the battle was entirely internal, “I struggled with being confident in myself,” she admitted. However, she soon found her footing. Having a younger brother helped, and in the end, for Grace leadership is not defined by age.

“Every week, my co-counsellor and I would have a group of six kids (usually it would be more, but with the pandemic, it had to be less) between the two of us and we would hang out with them all week.” For Grace, ‘hanging out’ included guiding the children through activities, creating program plans with her co-counsellor and taking them for lunch and breaks. “Usually, the camp is partly sleep-away and partly a day camp. With COVID, they just did the day camp. It was at Foothills Academy, a school for kids with ADHD and LDs,” Grace explained. Although running a high-intensity children’s camp might have been tricky before the pandemic, adjusting to life with masks and changing activities added another layer of complexity. Grace took it all in stride.

She explained that for children with LD’s and ADHD, the chance to learn social skills in a new environment is a big draw for parents. “We had resources from all of the past camps and there were certain social skills we would have activities focused around.” She elaborated, “Each week, we would plan daily activities around a certain social skill. For younger kids, we might teach about bullying or friendships. For older kids, we might teach about social media, cyberbullying, or romantic relationships. We needed to make it as fun as possible while focusing on the social skill to be learned.”

As for all the other activities, “we had free reign,” Grace explained. Each week, all the counsellors, herself included, would submit a program plan of activities. In addition, throughout the week, a ‘club’ would run on top of regularly planned activities, for example, music club, sports club, art club, or science club. “If assigned to a club, I would make plans for the whole week for that club. We also had ‘choice,’ which ran each day, where children could choose between a high-energy or a low-energy activity. Playing a game with water balloons on a hot day would be high energy, drawing would be low energy,” she added. What Grace learned is that every child is unique and has a story to tell.

Getting to know the children individually was a favourite part of Grace’s co-op experience, as well as “watching them make friends and get to know each other.” She explained how many children struggled with social interactions and making friends, but they began to come out of their shells by the end of camp. “There was this one week where these two little kids around eight-years-old were having a lot of trouble the first day. The one wanted to do what he wanted, basically colouring and nothing else. The other kid was not into being there. He wanted to go home badly. On the second and third days, they got to know each other and became best friends. If they got to do the activity with each other, they were so down to do it. The one didn’t like bugs and wouldn’t sit in the grass. By the end, he was out in the field playing capture the flag because his buddy was there. It's just so awesome to get to see kids make friends.” This experience was one of many rewarding moments Grace witnessed at camp.

Everything clicked for Grace during one of her last weeks. “It was the teenager week. I have a lot of fun with little kids. Teenagers scare me,” she jokes. “This one girl was having a tough time and I was a little bit short with her. She was trying to do something and I said, ‘no, we have to go over here.” Instead of getting angry or upset with me, she asked, ‘hey can I talk to you?’ She sat me down and explained to me why I was hurting her feelings.” This moment was impactful for Grace, who thought at the time, “your heart was so big, you’re so mature, you’re a wonderful human being. At thirteen, I would have been like, ‘I hate this I’m leaving.’ Instead, we talked it out and it was awesome to see her advocating for herself. That stuck with me. It made me examine how I need to be more patient. I’m usually patient, but I was kind of at the end of it.” Everyone has difficult days, but for Grace staying grounded is remembering to listen. She remembers thinking, “You’ve been through so much in your short life, but you’re still so kind and compassionate and patient with people and I thought I want to be like you when I grow up.”

Grace’s co-op experience has been challenging but also liberating and exciting. “I’ve only done one co-op so far, and I’ve already gained so much. Even just last year, the camp coordinator offered me a reference for a place she used to work in Lethbridge and the camp manager offered to connect me with an occupational therapist who worked at the school. Also, I didn’t know I wanted to work with kids every day until I tried it out. Co-op helped me define my career path.” Grace’s original plan was to “work with people who have had brain injuries. But working over the summer, I learned how much working with kids energizes me.”

Co-op experiences help you discover whether you will enjoy working in a particular field. It also provides you with immeasurably valuable work experience and connections. Many students are unaware of the co-op program or put it off until they are further along in their degree. While it is a meaningful opportunity at any time, the earlier you begin, the more chances you have to explore different options and narrow your career focus, just like Grace.

Grace encourages others to embrace new experiences, especially through co-op, and not allow the feeling of being too young or inexperienced to stop you. Everyone needs to start somewhere.

Learn more about co-op!