Stories & Features

Xaxli'p student earns computing science degree, with help from BC Hydro

Image of Xaxli'p community member Austin Whitney
Two BC Hydro scholarships helped Xaxli’p community member Austin Whitney to a computing science degree at SFU.

Deadline for applying for this year's Indigenous Scholarships is May 31

Final exams are over and Austin Whitney is looking forward to the formal recognition of his Simon Fraser University computing science degree – albeit in a virtual convocation ceremony – in June. He's come a long way from the kid from the Xaxli'p community near Lillooet who dreamed of turning his love of video games into a career.

"I was always curious as to how video games were created, and when I finally enrolled into a computer science class in high school, I knew I had found my major," says Whitney, via an email interview just after his final exam in April. "The logical and puzzle solving skills that computer science requires perfectly match my natural strengths. In the future, I see myself designing and developing new systems and features for global consumers."

After graduating from Burnaby North Secondary, it took five years of hard work at SFU to get to where he is today, at 22. Whitney had a hard act to follow – actually two hard acts to follow. His older brother Dylan is a UBC grad currently in second year medicine at the University of Alberta, and his older sister Taylor has translated her UBC degree into a job with renowned game developer Electronic Arts.

"I learned from my siblings to set high goals, and with hard work and determination I can reach those goals," he says.

Support from Xaxli'p Nation and BC Hydro prove vital

Whitney says both the financial and moral support of the Xaxli'p helped keep him on track. And he got back-to-back $5,000 scholarships from BC Hydro in 2019 and 2020 to help fund his education.

BC Hydro Indigenous scholarships and bursaries are available to BC First Nations, Indigenous Status, Non-Status, Métis, and Inuit students who are residents of B.C. and who are enrolled, or are Grade 12 students planning to pursue enrollment, in an accredited full-time post-secondary program. The application deadline for this year's scholarships and bursaries is May 31. Whitney was one of 35 scholarship recipients from 26 different Indigenous communities across B.C. in 2020-21 [PDF, 358 KB].

Whitney's relationship with BC Hydro wasn't, however, limited to funding help. He was part of the BC Hydro Youth Hires program in 2016, when he worked in the utility's customer analytics department. He worked directly with BC Hydro's Peak Saver Trial, an initiative to test how incentives could help customers limit their energy use during hours of peak energy demand in B.C., helping calculate rebates based on how much energy they saved.

"And during my co-op with BC Hydro in 2020, I worked with the engineering department to verify schematics for various substations across the province," he says. "I learned about the various components in substations and the complex logistics required to supply power to consumers. These work experiences were invaluable in building my employment history and providing practical job opportunities."

During this school year, Whitney has faced the additional challenge of doing classes exclusively online and managed using Zoom. This semester, he's taking two computer science courses and a Japanese course, and he's happy to report that distanced learning has had some benefits.

"Honestly, since Zoom offers the feature to randomly break students up into isolated rooms, I have spoken to more people through this medium than during in-person classes," he said.

Whitney says many of his relatives still live in the small Xaxli'p community, formerly known as Fountain Band and one of 11 communities that make up the St'at'imc Nation and Territory. Whitney says he's proud of the community's long history of helping build the foundation and identity of Canada.

"We have values, we have dreams, and we have lots of potential," says Whitney, who is proving that point along with his siblings.

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