In 2006, Debbie Balika was a single mother of two young children trying to carve out a better future for her family.
She was finishing her Early Childhood Education diploma at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario, when her co-op supervisor made a suggestion that changed the course of her life.
"Why don't you take Lakehead's concurrent education degree and become a teacher?" she urged. Her supervisor – who was a Lakehead alum – knew that the University was about to open a second campus in Orillia.
Debbie loved the idea of teaching, but she found the prospect of university intimidating. Despite her fears, she plucked up her courage and enrolled in the Honours Bachelor of Arts and Science program and the Bachelor of Education program. That autumn, when the campus opened its doors at Heritage Place in downtown Orillia, Debbie was one of the members of Lakehead Orillia’s historic charter class.
“At the time, one of my children was in junior kindergarten and the other one was in senior kindergarten, so we all started school together,” Debbie says.
Although she recalls that she spent the first six months wondering if they’d mistakenly let her in, her reservations gradually faded away. “Going to a smaller school meant there was more room for discussions and more room to learn how to be a critical thinker and problem solve,” she says. She was mentored by staff and faculty members and found a summer job assisting with a microalgae research project led by Dr. Nanda Kanavillil, a sustainability sciences professor.
“I’ve always loved nature, and I’ve always stood in the worlds of education and science,” Debbie explains.
She immersed herself more deeply in the scientific realm when she was hired as a contract animal biology lab technician. By the time of her fourth-year teaching practicum, Debbie found herself wondering if teaching in the classroom was really where her heart lay.
“I remember going to Dr. Sree Kurissery, a biology professor, and saying, ‘I really wish I could do a Master of Science degree.’ And Sree said, ‘Oh, but you can.’”
Through the efforts of Dr. Kurissery and Dr. Kanavillil, Debbie and fellow student Sheri O’Connor became Lakehead Orillia’s first graduate students. Debbie received her Master of Science in Biology in 2014 and joined Lakehead’s faculty as a contract education and biology instructor. She held this position for several years while simultaneously working as a water quality specialist with Kawartha Conservation.
Recently, Debbie made another big change – in July 2020, she became the source water protection lead with Conservation Ontario in Newmarket, Ontario.
“I coordinate, lead, and support Conservation Ontario’s Drinking Water Source Protection project managers in source protection regions and areas so that they can carry out their legislative role under the Clean Water Act.”
She’s enjoying this new challenge, even though the circumstances aren’t ideal.
“I haven’t seen my office yet or met my colleagues in person because of the pandemic.”
But as her experiences at Lakehead made clear, whatever she sets her mind to, Debbie Balika will give it her all.