Gordon Johnston, BASc '18, Civil Engineering

Gordon Johnston
"One of the biggest challenges of my undergraduate degree was learning how to study while I was away competing [as an Olympic-level field hockey player]"

While completing my undergraduate degree, I captained UBC’s varsity field hockey team and was a member of the Canadian Olympic Team. I was simultaneously committed to both my athletic and academic aspirations, and constantly challenged myself to excel at both. My experience playing for the UBC varsity field hockey team helped me grow into a more complete player, and in 2013, I competed in the Junior World Cup. As I completed my second year of civil engineering at UBC, I solidified my position on the varsity team and began to find a balance between hockey and engineering. In 2014, I took a year away from academics to live and play in Belgium, focussing on my athletic career and preparing myself for the Olympic qualification games in 2015. In the summer of 2015, we qualified, and the following summer I competed in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was a life-changing experience, and I have continued to learn from it ever since. After the Olympics, I returned to UBC to finish my civil engineering degree, and continued to play for the Canadian team. When I took some time away from engineering, I realized just how much I appreciated the work I was doing and in my final two years, I developed a passion for hydrotechnical engineering, and I decided to focus my technical studies in this field. One of the biggest challenges of my undergraduate degree was learning how to study while I was away competing: over the past six years, I have competed in 130 international games, in 21 different countries, all while finishing my civil engineering degree. It was a long road, and I had to push myself ever day to stay engaged in both engineering and athletics.

Why did you choose engineering?

I applied to the UBC engineering program because of my appreciation for science and math, and my passion for understanding how the world works. It was curiosity that got me into engineering, but I stayed with it because even in the hardest times, I still enjoyed it. I consider myself quite lucky for choosing a subject that both challenges me and that I enjoy so thoroughly. I enjoy working with the natural world to help create and improve the environment in which we live. I was inspired at a young age to explore the close interaction between the natural and built world, and engineering allowed me to do just that. I appreciate understanding the math and science behind how things work, but I’m more content when I can use my theoretical knowledge-base to thoughtfully solve problems. I hope I can use my experience to contribute to projects where I can protect the environment and help build sustainable infrastructure.

What has made your time at UBC the most memorable?

While at UBC, I had the privilege of playing for UBC’s Varsity Men’s Field Hockey Team. I had the opportunity to compete with so many incredible people with whom I have formed many lifelong friendships.

What have you learned in engineering that is most valuable?

Engineering at UBC as been both a challenge and a great learning experience. In most of my classes, teamwork was central to success. I had an amazing experience working with students from around the world to achieve a common goal. Both in school and in sport, working with a group of diverse people to achieve collective success has been the most challenging and rewarding part of my education.

How are you applying the skills you learned through your studies at UBC?

I hope to be working in water resource engineering, hydraulics and coastal structures, where I can help keep our water supply clean and safe. I hope to use my experience working on hydrotechnical projects to work on clean energy projects around the world.

What has been your most memorable/valuable non-academic experience studying engineering at UBC?

For most of my young life I was consumed with the dream of representing Canada at the Olympic Games. In every session I pushed myself to become a better version of myself and for years this dream seemed like it would always be just out of reach. When we stepped on the field for the first game of the Olympics, it truly felt like whatever my path had been, with all the positives and negatives, the successes and failures, it had been the right one. The journey to the Olympics and the experience competing with sixteen of my teammates were both equally valuable in developing my teamwork and communication skills. I also learned the meaning of relentless hard work, professionalism and diligence. These values will stick with me for the rest of my life. I hope to represent our country again in 2020, for the Tokyo Olympic Games; playing elite sport while studying engineering was often a challenge, but I know that it has been one of my most valuable learning experiences.

How do you feel a degree in engineering has benefitted you compared to a different field of study?

One of the aspects of the engineering program that I enjoyed the most was the problem-solving nature of all the courses. We had the opportunity to analyze and design real-word projects in many of our assignments. This structure makes engineering a very practical degree, and prepares you for the professional environment. Throughout my degree, I felt challenged to grow and pushed to improve. I especially appreciated the hands-on learning experiences, which allowed me to provide depth to my understanding of the theory.

What advice would you give a student considering engineering?

Engineering will challenge you every day to solve problems in creative and thoughtful ways. These problems are often far beyond anything you currently understand or have ever tried, but through hard work and sometimes brute force, you will find a way to get it done. Although tough and time-consuming, I find it to be an incredibly rewarding field of study: it will always push you past your comfort zone and demand the highest level of perseverance.

Where do you find your inspiration?

In athletics and academics, I am constantly inspired by all the things I don’t know and the things I haven’t done. When I am challenged by something I don’t understand, I find it inspiring and satisfying to work my way through the problem and figure it out. When I look back at my time at UBC, it is filled with instances where I felt totally outmatched by an assignment, quiz or exam. When I didn’t understand something, it sometimes felt like there was a mountain of work ahead of me. However, at the end of the day I just put my head down and worked on it until it made sense — that feeling of the light bulb coming on never gets old.

What are your plans for the future?

I hope to continue playing field hockey while working as a hydrotechnical engineer, and find a balance that allows me to be truly successful at both. Over the next two years, the Canadian field hockey team will attempt to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and I plan to continue competing with the team, and pushing myself to become one of the best players in the world. I believe that my pursuit of the Olympic Games has complimented my engineering studies, and that my athletic successes are related to my commitment to academics. The two have complemented each other all throughout my degree.

How will you go on to make a difference in our world?

I hope to make a difference by helping to develop a sustainable, safe and clean environment where we live, work and play. I will be working hard to make clean and sustainable energy accessible to even the poorest and most remote corners of our planet. I also will work hard to ensure that the natural resources on this planet are used, protected and preserved in everything that I do.