From chronically stressed to helping others with their mental health

Just before Christmas in 2016, Erin Oldman’s doctor advised her to take a break. She’d spent most of the previous decade working as a safety officer on large-scale construction and mining projects in her native Australia and volunteering for organizations supporting mental health for workers in her industry, as well as survivors of natural disasters across the state of Queensland.

Ironically, the work had taken a toll on Oldman’s own health. Diagnosed with chronic stress and encouraged to take some time away, she followed through on a week-long trip she’d already booked to Bali.

“When the time came to board the flight home on Christmas Eve, however, I found myself wholly reluctant to do so,” says Oldman. “In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decided to forfeit the $600 airline ticket and go back to the beach where I had spent much of the previous week.”

That decision changed her life.

Chance meeting on the beach

Erin Oldman and Ken Christie

The next afternoon, on Christmas Day, she met Prof. Ken Christie, program head of the human security and peacebuilding at Royal Roads University. They talked about her life, and Christie suggested Oldman consider pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Human Security and Peacebuilding at Royal Roads.

Never mind that the university was 13,000 kilometres from home. Even with online learning, Oldman thought the whole idea was laughable.

“I protested strongly that this was a very long shot indeed considering I had barely attained a high school certification, and even that was almost 20 years earlier! Ken was persistent though, and his confidence sparked something inside me that would, I soon discovered, refuse to be extinguished.”

Oldman was accepted to the program in 2017, beginning what she calls “the most challenging undertaking of my life.” Her courage and self-belief were continuously tested but Oldman not only persevered, she excelled.

In 2020, she completed her Master of Arts in Human Security and Peacebuilding with a grade point average of 4.11 – and became the first-ever recipient of the $25,000 Victoria Foundation Rachel and Ernest Fox Legacy Award.

The Legacy Award

Rachel and Ernest Fox were dedicated life-long learners who wanted to encourage others to experience higher education. They left their estate to the Victoria Foundation, along with a rather unusual request — to set up a fund to offer interest-free loans to post-secondary students.

The idea was innovative. No such fund existed in Canada. And while it was an exciting opportunity, it also created a challenge, according to Sara Neely, the foundation’s director of philanthropic services.

“We wanted to honour the Foxes’ wishes but this type of program isn’t something the Victoria Foundation can administer directly. It was important to find the right partner to administer the loan program. We decided to partner with a local university and Royal Roads was keen to participate,” says Neely.

In 2009, the partners established the Rachel and Ernest Fox Loan program at Royal Roads, the first of its kind in the country. The Legacy Award, granted every five years, is an offshoot of the loan program, funded by donations and loan repayments. It’s intended to help students at Royal Roads who demonstrate the capacity to make a profound change in society, through local or global communities and actions.

Oldman was “completely over the moon” to hear she’d won. The financial component was welcome, but Oldman was more deeply moved by the award’s symbolic value.

“It validates my willingness to educate myself,” Oldman says, “so I can be better informed about how to help others.”

Oldman is using most of her award money to establish a charity called International Humanitarian Assessments, helping people on the ground in war-torn Syria.

Thinking back to 2016, Oldman has no doubt she made the right decision.

“It seemed that fate was offering me an incredible and rare opportunity.” Oldman says. “I’ve always been passionate about contributing to better mental health, and now I can do that on a scale much larger than I dreamed. I’ve already invested in learning how to be of greater help to others. With this financial bequest in hand, now is the time to invest in others to do the same.”

Rachel and Ernest Fox would no doubt agree.