UBC Psychology student wins Aboriginal Student Award to pursue graduate studies

“I never thought to ever apply for a scholarship and then I realized how much they can help,” says Tomm.  “I almost dropped out of school! Even if you think that you won’t be successful – apply anyway. It’s worth it.”

Ryan Tomm, of the Seton Lake First Nation, was awarded a $5,000, renewable Aboriginal Student Award. With an undergraduate degree in psychology under his belt, Ryan is heading straight into a combined Master’s/PhD program in Behavioral Neuroscience at UBC this fall.

The combined program allows Tomm to earn a Master’s degree on the way to earning his PhD and provides an opportunity to continue his research, which looks at alteration in cognition and the effects of aging on decision making. Behavioral Neuroscience is offered as a specialization through UBC’s Department of Psychology.

While it may sound like Tomm has been a life-long academic, higher education wasn’t always on the agenda.

“When I was in high school, I never thought I would go to University,” says Tomm. “It just wasn’t a priority at that time.”

Tomm and his sister moved in with their grandmother after they lost their mother to cancer. It was Tomm’s grandmother that pushed him to lead by example and prioritize education as a means to serve his community. She saw education as a way for Tomm to make a difference.

After pursuing a certificate in community and school support, Tomm worked his way into a First Nations Education Worker position, working with youth at Chase Secondary just outside of Kamloops. The combination of growing up as a teen that had to overcome adversities and his rewarding front-line experiences working with youth, led to a desire to help the community in a greater way. He saw an opportunity to help Aboriginal people by addressing mental health and wellness of First Nations on a systemic level.

“Originally I didn’t even know I liked neuroscience,” says Tomm. “I thought when I came to UBC, I would go into clinical psychology but then I started taking science classes and fell in love with the brain.”

He learned that environmental factors like poverty and stress can affect the brain and, in turn, impact mental health. Through Behavioral Neuroscience, Tomm wants to gain knowledge that will one day help him affect First Nations policy decisions to improve health and wellness from within the community.

Although passionate about his field, Tomm does his best to stay balanced by keeping healthy and visiting family when he can.

“It was a hard decision to even leave home to come to UBC – I had to sacrifice being with my family, says Tomm. “But, the scholarship really helps. It gives me an opportunity to go back and visit them.”

Spending summers doing research and the rest of the year studying is taxing and it doesn’t leave much time for work. The scholarship has allowed Tomm to have a better quality of life while in school and purchase important computer equipment needed for his research.

“I never thought to ever apply for a scholarship and then I realized how much they can help,” says Tomm.  “I almost dropped out of school! Even if you think that you won’t be successful – apply anyway. It’s worth it.”

Story credit to the Irving K. Barber Society website. For information on the BC Aboriginal Student Award and how to apply, click here. 


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