Everything and the job

All-Canadian athlete enjoys success in sports, academics and work.


It’s no secret that the engineering program at the University of Alberta is challenging. Maintaining top grades is difficult; doing so while playing on a varsity sports team means taking on even more work.

But for Sarah Farley, a co-op student in the third year of the civil and environmental engineering program, nothing could be better than a schedule that blends academics and athletics. During the fall semester, she managed to blend a co-op placement with at the Diavik Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories with a spot on the Pandas rugby team.

Farley, a centre and sometimes winger for the team, says her success in the classroom and on the field is really an extension of everything she did as a high-school student. A graduate of the French immersion program at École Secondaire Beaumont Composite High School in Beaumont, just south of Edmonton, Farley played high-school rugby and in 2013 won both the Student of the Year award and the Town of Beaumont Athletics - Academics award.

Her hard work as a Pandas student-athlete paid off this year when she was one of 142 U of A students awarded Academic All-Canadian status. The title is bestowed on students who maintain a grade point average of at least 80 per cent while playing on a university sports team.

Farley spoke with the Faculty of Engineering about her co-op placements, rugby and how she juggles athletics and academics.

Q: What was your most recent co-op work experience like?

Working at Diavik was a great experience for me. I was never exposed to working 12-hour days (for two weeks straight) and being in an isolated location. I had the opportunity to work in the field and see the construction of two projects. Also, I got to experience the stressful (and very short) construction season. It was very busy and I was needed at numerous places all the time. This was challenging, and rewarding once you got it all done. Some days I spent almost my entire shift out in the field. I was working with three other co-op students, and we often worked together to figure things out. Working with other students also made it easier to get comfortable at the mine.

Q: Why did you choose the engineering co-op program?

I chose co-op because I really wanted to learn more than what is taught in class. I wanted to get experience out in the working world. Also, it definitely gives you a nice break from classes. Having six courses and playing a varsity sport is extremely stressful and drains you out. Going to work really helped me kind of recharge. I'm back in classes with a crazy schedule. I was extremely fortunately to play rugby and be on a work term at the same time—my work schedule definitely worked out in my favour.

Another benefit is the money—although the experience is the most important fact, the money helps pay for my studies.

There are lots of advantages of being in the co-op program. You get lots of support to help find a job—I would never have found this job on my own. You can also determine your work preferences and then set goals of where you want to see yourself in the future.

Q: What do you learn during a co-op placement?

I learned a lot during this work term. Even when I didn’t feel like I was applying a lot of what I learned in my courses, I was learning many other skills such as communication, organization, working under pressure. (Many skills I've gained in the past, but I was able to test them in a different environment.)

Q: You’ve obviously been successful in academics and athletics—how do you manage to excel at both?

Initially, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to play varsity and be on a work term. However, I spoke lots to [co-op co-ordinator] Sherri Kuss and she helped me out a lot! She was my go-to for any questions I had about interviews, resumes, placements and everything for co-op. It's much more relaxing playing rugby and working shift work than being in six courses and doing rugby.

The huge thing to get everything done is time management. It's essential as a student-athlete to prioritize and to really use your time well. As a student, I know how easy it can be to procrastinate. I try to use all the hours in the day to ensure I can get to bed at a reasonable hour so I'm ready to tackle the next day. The rugby season isn't very long: tryouts are in August and then nationals are during the first week of November. The fall semester is definitely the most challenging. We have practices every weekday and additional weight-training sessions throughout the week. The off-season is much different; I have a bit more flexibility in my schedule.

Q: What do you learn from sports that helps you as a student and engineer?

Playing rugby has taught me that being an athlete is great, but difficult at times. I've enjoyed every success and learned from all the failures. Rugby has taught me the power of resilience and how to overcome my failures so I can improve as a player. I've been able to bounce back from injuries, which are common with rugby, and big losses. It's never easy to overcome these but it makes you a much stronger person when you do.

It definitely makes me reflect on my engineering degree. Every year is difficult—but it will be so worth it in the end!

Q: Why did you choose to study engineering, and what are your career plans?

I chose engineering right out of high school because I really enjoyed math and sciences. Also, I like problem solving and being challenged. My uncle is an environmental engineer (and took the co-op program at the U of A as well); I spoke with him about which route to take and he gave me a bit of guidance.

As for my career plans and aspirations in engineering, I’m not entirely sure where I will work. I really enjoyed my environmental engineering classes last year and look forward to my next classes, and initially wanted to work with water treatment. My work term at Diavik has sparked my interest in the mining industry, and I’m now thinking of working in site remediation. Hopefully, my future work terms will help me decide what I really want to do.