Campus 'village' sustains MBA grad's new life

Emily Dietrich wanted to help others realize their capacity to be learners and leaders, but first she had to discover her own.


(Edmonton) Emily Dietrich is all about building communities to tackle social and environmental challenges, even as she builds her life.

As Dietrich graduates today with one of the University of Alberta’s first MBAs specializing in sustainability, her thoughts are for her own sustainers: an ongoing community of carers that got her to where she is today.

“The idea of community is really important to me. Working together, people can solve tough challenges. It was a village of people who helped me.”

As an outreach and engagement lead at the U of A’s Office of Sustainability, Dietrich will use her newly minted MBA to continue growing eco-friendly initiatives on campus, and community-building will continue to guide her work—as it has her life.

Her MBA is the latest in a string of accomplishments for Dietrich, who, a little over a decade ago, didn’t think it was possible to attend university, let alone earn a degree. Married into a very difficult relationship at age 17, Dietrich left at age 22. Homeless and with no education, Dietrich realized that she didn’t want to ever again be reliant on someone else for her survival.

“I saw women who seemed to be successful, and what they had in common was education.”

With the encouragement of a few people who cared, she enrolled at Grande Prairie Regional College to take a few courses. “I thought I would fail; I ended up getting top marks and winning a national scholarship.” Encouraged by one of her professors to consider pursuing a degree, Dietrich remembers asking what a degree was. But a seed was planted, and she enrolled.

“For the first time, I felt I had eyes to dream.”

She went on to earn a bachelor of education degree at the college through the Teacher Education North Program offered jointly with the U of A. While completing her undergraduate degree, Dietrich travelled to remote northern and Aboriginal communities to share options for access to post-secondary education with high-school students. She had promised to visit every school that invited her and on more than one occasion she found herself crossing ice bridges and off-roading to get there.

She felt strongly about opening up the world of education for others who are isolated as she had once been. “Post-secondary education is linked with our ability to take care of ourselves and have a happy life. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to go to university—there are tons of options. I wanted to share those options with others.”

While teaching Grade 10 English, Dietrich learned to use a community-building approach to succeed with students who had previously struggled. She has taken this same approach with her into the sustainability field, working with the Government of Alberta’s One Simple Act program and then with the U of A’s newly formed Office of Sustainability.

In short order, Dietrich has helped shape the office into an award-winning initiative. As the sustainability initiatives she’s involved in have increased in scope and complexity, so has the need to build business cases, lead teams and manage financial resources. Dietrich quickly realized that an MBA would be a good fit for her new role.

Working full-time, Dietrich—as determined as ever to succeed—studied part-time for four years. Although it was stressful at times, she appreciated the challenge. “It stretched me; I didn’t know what an MBA was five years ago.”

Dietrich now feels she has the tools to apply “a strategic lens” to her work. For instance, she is leveraging the principle of capacity-building to foster sustainability leaders across the institution. To do so, Dietrich has transformed a collection of workshops she designed into a course she teaches through the U of A’s Faculty of Extension.

She is also co-chair of the university’s Sustainable Purchasing Working Group. Dietrich also applies her skills serving at the community level, on a City of Edmonton inaugural committee, Women’s Advocacy Voice of Edmonton.

Dietrich says her philosophy is that it “takes a village to get things done,” and in the university community, she has found her village. The U of A professors who taught her MBA courses are now part of her valued community and Dietrich is grateful for their “inspiration, guidance and collaboration in helping build the bridge between theory and campus sustainability projects.”

She will continue to rely on this community even as she works to expand, strengthen, diversify and empower people around her. There are so many more people she knows she needs to hear from. “Everyone has a story—it is about learning that story, celebrating people’s strengths and creating clear pathways to opportunities.”

“My 22-year-old self would not recognize my 34-year-old self today,” Dietrich said. “Completing my MBA while working full-time has taught me that I can do almost anything because of the community I’m part of.”