by Meredith Dault
Erin Tolley laughs when she thinks back on first hearing about the Trudeau Scholarship. "In the first year of my PhD, I got an email about it. I remember looking at the profiles of the people who had won in the past, and I thought ‘oh no, I could never get that'." Little did she know that just over a year later, she'd be a recipient.
Tolley, 32, who just finished the second year of her PhD in Political Studies at Queen's, says she was surprised and excited to find out that she'd won the prestigious academic prize. "It's a really long process," explains Tolley, who only applied after more than a few people suggested it. Though the Trudeau Foundation received more than 200 applications for this year's award, they only interview 25 contenders, handing out up to 15 awards a year. Once shortlisted, Tolley was then interviewed by a panel of external reviewers in Montreal-- a process she describes as ‘fun'. "It's always fun to talk about your research to a presumably captive audience!" she says.
Tolley's work is focused on visible minorities in Canadian politics and specifically on the underrepresentation of visible minorities in the House of Commons. "We're seeing increasing diversity in Canada," she explains, "but that diversity isn't being reflected in our elected bodies." According to Tolley, while visible minorities make up 16 per cent of the Canadian population, only seven per cent of the country's Members of Parliament are from visible minority groups.
"My dissertation is looking at why that's happening and how we can fix it," says Tolley, a native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, who came to her area of interest after earning her undergraduate degree in Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and her Master's degree in Political Science at the University of Western Ontario.
She later took an eight year break from academia to work for the federal government in a number of different departments, but most recently in the department of Citizenship and Immigration. "Obviously, that got me thinking about issues of integration, equity and immigration," Tolley explains. Part of her research will involve looking at the racialized aspects of politics and media coverage -- particularly the way people think about race and how that thinking affects voter receptivity to visible minorities.
Besides the generous financial support that the Trudeau Scholarship provides, including an annual living stipend and funding for travel and research, Tolley says she is thrilled by the other opportunities it will afford, including a mentorship and a variety of formal networking opportunities. "A mentor can really help you think about your research in a different way," she says, "and there are also public interaction programs, where scholars are encouraged to participate. The idea is that you get acquainted with people outside of your discipline and outside academia."
After all, at the end of the day Tolley says she doesn't merely want to talk to political scientists about her work. "I want to be forced to think about the broad implications of my research, and to get practice talking about it with people who aren't in political science. Otherwise you end up only speaking your own language all the time."
There's still a hint of disbelief in Tolley's laugh when she talks about her scholarship win. "It must be a grand mistake," she laughs. "How did I weasel my way into that?" Upon completion of her PhD, Erin plans to continue her career in policy and research. One thing is clear: more than a few doors are going to be wide open.