Seeing the potential for change
Graduating into a post-pandemic world sharpens Kiera McMaster’s focus to make it better
She is the type of student who is not easily forgotten, wrote her nominator. The positive impact Kiera McMaster leaves on her peers and the wider community was recently recognized when she won the Faculty of Arts Award for Excellence in Service.
McMaster is one of a few undergraduate students who won the Arts Award, an annual initiative to recognize excellence in faculty, staff and students. Graduating this week with a Bachelor of Global Business and Digital Arts (GBDA), based at the Stratford School, she stands out as engaged and community-minded; she combines her skills and knowledge with a strong instinct to observe her social environment, see where help is needed and do something about it.
This is especially evident in the social enterprise McMaster initiated during her third year. The Resource Bin program assists the GBDA student community with everyday essentials such as food and hygiene products that some cannot easily afford. “Students in Waterloo have access to the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA) food bank,” she says, “but in Stratford, we were missing an equivalent.”
As a long-standing advocate for health and well-being among her peers, McMaster noticed that some classmates were not eating well.
“Stratford can be an expensive place to live, as many of the stores are priced with the Festival tourists in mind, so there can be barriers to accessing affordable food,” she says.
Through her collaborative efforts with WUSA and community supporters, she raised funds and collected items that the School’s staff and faculty, along with local small business owners, could easily donate. With a start-up donation of $200, she supplied dry food items, toilet paper, personal hygiene items, laundry soap, sanitary products and other essential household items to fill two bins. She placed the Resource Bins in discrete locations at the School, each with a sign that said: “Take what you need/leave what you can.”
Discretion was important, she realized.
“Our campus is small, and it feels like everybody knows everybody else. That was the main reason for our anonymous model: what good is having the food there if people feel too embarrassed to access it? From there, we realized the model was working and expanded to include providing menstrual products in the washrooms on campus, and snack bins in the kitchenettes.”
In October 2018, McMaster published an article about her research and insights that resulted in the Resource Bin project. In it, she clearly demonstrates that there is an “enormous potential for change when data and empathy come together to tell a complete story.”
As a GBDA student, McMaster had exemplary experiential learning and career options. For her internship, and every summer during her undergraduate career, McMaster has worked with CIBC.
“I think it speaks to the versatility of GBDA that I was able to start as a UX Strategy intern at CIBC, and eventually make my way to Client Segment Strategy and Insights,” she says. “My terms at the bank have been a combination of design thinking, data analysis and fantastic mentorship.”
Her passion and interests were able to thrive in the GBDA program too.
“My favourite courses and projects all had some kind of social component,” she says. “As designers, I feel that we have a responsibility to design with the greater societal impact in mind. GBDA also gave me a lot of the tools I needed to build my own program from the ground up: by the time I started the Resource Bins, identifying the core problem and building something to fix it had become second nature.”
Annaka Willemsen, the administrative officer at Stratford School, notes that McMaster has been a standout student in numerous ways.
“Kiera was a board member of the Stratford Town & Gown Committee, a member of the GBDA society, a volunteer for literally everything extra-curricular, a much-loved and respected Teaching Assistant, and she is just a delightful person.”
McMaster’s next steps may be unique among GBDA graduates. While the program has an excellent track record of grads securing jobs in technology and business sectors, she chose to continue her education this fall with a Master’s degree in Human Geography at Queen’s University. She plans to build on her work in food security issues.
Whether she starts her graduate studies in person or online, McMaster says the pandemic is sharpening her focus and goals.
“COVID has given us tangible examples of how food systems are broken. We don’t have to go back to the old systems, but as we build out new systems, we need to ensure that all voices are at the table. Indigenous food sovereignty is a huge consideration as we reimagine food.”