Lionel Migrino was taking his time getting ready for work as if it were any other normal day. He logged on to his work computer and started to see message after message pop up. “At first I thought ‘Ok, I have many fires to put out,’” he says. “But when I found out that I had won the award, I couldn’t believe it.”

The Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada’s Student of the Year Award is presented to a few select students across Canada each year. The award recognizes both college and university students who study at CEWIL institutions for their extraordinary achievement in work-integrated learning. This year, University of Lethbridge student Lionel Migrino is one of them.

The Dhillon School of Business, Calgary campus student is being recognized for “driving change and inspiring action.” After feeling some disbelief that he had won the award, Migrino says he feels extremely blessed. “Winning this award means so much to me and makes what I do meaningful.” If you had told him 10 years ago though, Migrino says, “I would have ignored it or laughed because work people like me are often unseen and voiceless.”

Migrino, who lives with cerebral palsy says it hasn’t been uncommon to be made fun of for the way he talks, the way he walks, or to be the target of microaggressions, even on the job. At one job interview, Migrino says he was told his disability was a liability, even though he was qualified for the job.

It all started with co-op

A strategic move got him into the co-operative education program at ULethbridge.

“I recognized that I’m going to graduate soon and with COVID and the economy being so uncertain, I needed to gain that experience to look attractive on my resume", says the human resources management and labour relations major. "I wanted to really learn and develop my career as a professional.”

Migrino says he was open to a four- or eight-month co-op term but when he was offered a position with Pembina Pipeline Corporation for a year, he knew he needed to take the opportunity to prove to himself and others that he could succeed in the corporate world.

The advice that changed everything

On that first day of his co-op experience at Pembina, Migrino says one moment in particular stood out to him. A colleague sat down with Migrino and told him something rather insightful, opening his eyes to how to navigate the corporate landscape.

“She said, ‘make sure that you stay visible.’ With that she meant make sure you are heard, make sure that you are valued, make sure that your talents are recognized, make sure that you are seen and you have a voice.”

Migrino says that people who are different like himself, whether because of race, gender, abilities, sexuality, religion and age, often feel excluded and resort to hiding who they are so they will be able to access a seat at the table.

“But her advice to me,” Migrino continues, “was never apologize for who you are and your different experience because you are talented like everyone else and you should always make sure that you are heard. That really woke me up.”

Student-led change comes to life

Migrino delved into his work, splitting his time at Pembina between Compliance and Technical Training, Integrated Talent Management and Talent Acquisition, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).

One month in Migrino had an idea for disability training that would include the consequences of inaccessibility and some of his personal experiences with exclusion. He got the support to do the training and assumed he’d just be conducting the training with his team. He was soon asked to speak to different business units, then to different leadership groups and then was being sought out to speak about EDI at business sessions on and off site. Most recently, Migrino created a series of Disability Awareness Training workshops that will be available to Pembina employees.

“I created the disability awareness training in hopes that people personally and professionally will take action on accessibility and inclusion,” Migrino explains. “I always thought that people were really ignorant when they were talking to me and treating me like a kid, but then I recognized that most of the time it’s because they’re misinformed and they haven’t really interacted with people with disabilities.”

Knowing not a lot of information on disabilities exists, Migrino hopes to encourage people to consider not what is wrong with individuals, but address what is wrong with society.

“I want people to address how they can help people reach their full potential,” he says. “How can they empower ability? All I want is for people to see that ability in disability because we’re all capable, it’s just if people will give us an opportunity.”

Embracing discomfort

The work isn’t always comfortable. Migrino encourages leaders to get uncomfortable in conversations.

“I’m always uncomfortable living in this ableist world because I know the systems that are put into place are not made for people like me,” he says. “I always ask people to embrace uncomfortableness for 15 minutes, for however long I am facilitating the training, because if you’re not uncomfortable, then how would you learn? I ask them to look at themselves and consider how can I make the world more accessible for people with different kinds of disabilities.”

The work will go on

Executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Lethbridge, Martha Mathurin-Moe, says Migrino is exceptionally deserving of the award and is grateful she’s gotten the chance to work alongside him to further EDI initiatives on campus.

“Lionel is true example of an EDI champion for change,” she says. “His continued commitment to advocate and center the voices and experiences of persons with disabilities is a key part of the work we must continue to do in order to create equitable, safe, accessible and inclusive spaces for all students.”

And the work will continue. Migrino says co-op really influenced his future pursuits.

“I really want to continue in that EDI space and become a leader and strong advocate for empowering others’ voices,” he says, adding with satisfaction, “And I’m happy to say that I’m no longer a co-op student because I did accept a permanent job at Pembina.”

The Dhillon School of Business at the University of Lethbridge is known for its immersive experiential learning opportunities, connecting learners with industry, its supportive, personalized approach and for exposing students to emerging technology. Study options available in both Lethbridge and Calgary.