For 3rd time in 2 years, Fort McMurray high school fields winner of major STEM scholarship

"I thought there was probably a five per cent chance that I'd get it," says Rion Schulz about winning the prestigious Schulich Scholarship for students planning to pursue post-secondary studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

'I thought there was probably a five per cent chance that I'd get it,' says Rion Schulz

Rion Schulz, a grade 12 student at Fort McMurray's École McTavish Public High School, won the Schulich Scholarship. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

For the third time in two years, a student from a Fort McMurray high school has won a major scholarship for students planning to pursue post-secondary studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

"I thought there was probably a five per cent chance that I'd get it," said Rion Schulz, a Grade 12 student at École McTavish Public High School, which put forward his name as its nominee for the prestigious $100,000 Schulich Scholarship.

In his application essay, he wrote about his interest in green energy and his passion for science and technology. 

When he found out he'd won one of the scholarships, Schulz was "very shocked" and said his parents shed tears of happiness.

"I worked so hard for the past 12 years of my life in school it feels like to get to this moment," said Schulz. 

Schulz has been working for Greenplanet Energy Analytics, a green energy company under the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Through that work, he helped with the Three Nations Energy (3NE) solar farm in Fort Chipewyan and its cabin solar research project.

In the cabin solar project, he calculated how much money a solar panel would save each owner compared to continuing with a diesel generator.

Schulz got the job through his dad's friend.

"At the time, I only had experience at A&W just serving burgers … he decided to take a chance on me," said Schulz. 

Extracurriculars make the difference

Laura MacEachen, a school counsellor who helps students with scholarships, said École McTavish nominated Schulz because of his high grades and extracurricular activities. 

She said it's a lot of work to apply for scholarships, which deters many students. But in the past two years, three McTavish students have won six-figure awards. 

In 2021, Tanisha Kadia won a $100,000 Loran scholarship and Maryam Tsegaye won the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a prize worth almost $500,000. 

MacEachen said the school promotes students involvement in the community, noting big awards often hinge on extracurricular activities.

"I think this town has a very good sense of that too, so it's easy to get involved," said MacEachen. "There's lots of opportunity if students want to take advantage."

Laura MacEachen helps students at École McTavish Public High School apply for scholarships. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

She said the students who won the large scholarships are exceptional, and "they'd be successful without these, but they're going to be even more successful with the award."

Thomas Andrews, acting principal for École McTavish, said the news brought him a "sense of pride." 

"We're just fortunate to have some really amazing students in our school," said Andrews. 

Thomas Andrews, the school's acting principal, wrote Schulz's letter of recommendation. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Being in Fort McMurray, Andrews said students have a unique opportunity to see a lot of science and technology.

"There was no doubt in my mind that he [Schulz] was a deserving candidate of it, but to think that we would have another student see that much success in a scholarship in the next year was definitely a surprise," said Andrews. 

Andrews has known Schulz since elementary school, and he wrote the recommendation letter for Schulz's scholarship application. 

Now Schulz will be going to the University of Alberta to study engineering and continue his work in green energy.

"I like to see the trees and the water… if we keep going down this path of oil and gas … my children and my grandchildren won't be able to experience the same beauty that we do. So I want to preserve that," said Schulz.