Making the improbable possible
A generous gift from the family of Warren and Maureen Spitz gave Bachelor of Commerce student, Thao Atkinson an opportunity she never thought she’d have.
Thao Atkinson used to think attending university was a pipe dream.
“I didn’t have much growing up,” she says. “I had a difficult childhood and went through foster care. I grew up in a small town of 600 people where very few got a post-secondary education. I’d more or less written off attending university.”
Still, despite her doubts, she had ambition.
“I wanted a degree job,” she says. “I just never thought I’d make it.”
The Spitz Fellows Program changed that. Funded by a generous gift from the family of Warren and Maureen Spitz, the Program supports Aboriginal women pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce at the UBC Sauder School of Business. Women like Thao.
“The Spitz Fellows Program isn’t just supporting me,” Thao says. “It underscores the fact that it’s important Aboriginal women are represented in business.”
Now in her second year at UBC Sauder, Thao’s personal and professional goals are starting to crystalize.
“This scholarship inspires me to do more than just get an education,” she says. “It has given me an opportunity I never thought I would have. So now I’m constantly asking myself ‘What can I do to make the most of it?’”
For years Thao has been an active volunteer in her community, organizing fundraising events and bringing awareness to causes that are most important to her. Now, she is active in the co-ed fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, which is built on a foundation of volunteering and cultivating leadership.
“Whatever I do I want to make an impact, whether it’s big or small,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to pursue a BCom at UBC Sauder – I felt like with business I could make a real impact on my community.”
Among the many UBC Sauder instructors who have inspired Thao throughout her studies are Wayne Rawcliffe of the Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Division, and Elicia Salzberg of the Law and Business Communications Group.
“They’re both approachable and very down-to-earth,” she says. “Because they bring their own experiences into their lectures, their classes are that much more vivid.”
In the BCom program, Thao has also developed a diverse network of fellow students.
“I’ve lived a very different life than many people in my class,” Thao says. “Being here, all together in the same program despite all our differences – that’s a pretty big deal.”
It’s an opportunity Thao doesn’t take for granted.
“I was in shock when I first found out I was the recipient of the Spitz Fellows,” she says. “Even now, I’ll go to bed at night and think ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’”
Meeting the remarkable people making a difference in
our community: The Spitz family
For the Spitz family– Warren, his wife Maureen and their three adult children Gregory, Kelsey and Mathew – philanthropy is about doing what is right; leveraging good fortune and personal success to support others in being the best they can be. That focus is exemplified in the Spitz Fellow Program the family established three years ago at the UBC Sauder School of Business to help eliminate financial barriers for Aboriginal women pursuing a BCom and support them to be their best.
Having worked for several summers on the BC central coast to pay his way through university, Warren developed a deep respect for First Nations communities and heard first hand of the barriers to post-secondary education faced by his friends and co-workers.
As he and his family imagined a new fellows program at UBC Sauder that would help address those barriers, they reached out to the school and the staff of the Ch’nook Indigenous Business Education Initiative to collaborate on the program.
Through Ch’nook, Warren, Maureen, Gregory and Kelsey had the opportunity to engage with Band Councillors, Chiefs, educators and others in northern communities to learn more about the issues young Aboriginal British Columbians face when they want to pursue post-secondary education in business. The experience confirmed, shaped and informed the development of the Spitz Fellows Program, the vision of which is to foster the conditions for each Fellow to empower herself to succeed in her educational goals and beyond, and to become the leader she envisions, in both the UBC Sauder and wider community.