Sept. 25, 2018

Alumni Spotlight: Heather Bensler, BN'96

Heather Bensler’s career path has taken her from global health in South America to obstetrics and nursing education in Canada. Now, she’s tackling Indigenous initiatives in response to the TRC’s call to action for nursing schools
Alumni Spotlight: Heather Bensler
From left, Star Mahara, Louise Baptiste and Heather Bensler at Thompson Rivers University Heather Bensler

Heather Bensler, BN’96, readily admits she doesn’t fit the stereotype of the ‘classic nurse.’

“I always tell my students that you don’t need to stick to a standard path,” says Bensler, nursing instructor and co-director, Indigenous Initiatives at the Faculty of Nursing. “The unconventional routes that sometimes present themselves can lead you in a very satisfying direction in your career.”

Bensler’s career has been anything but conventional. Inspired by UCalgary instructor Ardene Vollman, in 1995, Bensler developed an early passion for community health. After seven years with Alberta Heath Services as perinatal instructor, she capitalized on that community health knowledge and moved to Peru. There, she worked with the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center (I-TEC), a faith-based organization that develops tools and training systems to help Indigenous communities in frontier areas to be self-sustaining.

“I was part of I-SEE, the optometry arm of I-TEC. I trained Indigenous leaders to diagnose simple eye disorders and to prescribe eyeglasses,” says Bensler. The program continues to be used in South America, Africa and South-East Asia.

When Bensler returned to Canada, she discovered another passion — obstetrics — and completed her Master of Science in Nursing at Trinity Western University. “A colleague at the University of Alberta suggested that I may be a good post-secondary educator: that’s when I was hired at Mount Royal University as an assistant professor.”

That colleague nailed it, says Bensler, because education has become another area of excitement for her. “I am very interested in knowledge translation and how we, as nurses, can get people to shift their practice to align with the best evidence.

“There is a great opportunity with UCalgary to instill that into students,” Bensler adds. “The timing worked out for me. When my contract at MRU was up, I peeked north and this role with the faculty was posted.”

The role is that of co-director for Indigenous Initiatives, a newly-created position in UCalgary’s Faculty of Nursing in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) call-to-action for nursing schools.

This article originally appeared in the 2018 issue of Faculty of Nursing Alumni Connections.

Bensler at Tsuu T’ina Health Centre

From left, Bensler, Bernadette Crowchild, Camille Whitney, Charity Onespot at the Tsuu T’ina Health

Heather Bensler

“Our strength at the University of Calgary is that our curriculum is integrated,” she says. “While the TRC asks for one course to speak to the impact of colonization and the concept of cultural safety, with our curriculum, we are able to thread it throughout.”

Bensler’s focus is on curriculum and faculty development. She is currently doing a needs assessment while also teaching one class. “What has already been implemented with vulnerable populations is impressive,” she says. “My plans include developing Indigenous health-focused simulations, integrating Indigenous history into the curriculum through activities such as the blanket exercise and providing lunch and learns for faculty. We have already visited a few Canadian universities that are doing amazing work with their Indigenous students and will be incorporating some of our learnings from there.”

In August 2018, Bensler and her fellow director, Louise Baptiste, will present on their progress at the faculty’s quarterly alumni breakfast, Food for Thought. As for her new role, Bensler is keen about the possibilities.

“It’s a little overwhelming and a very big job,” adds Bensler, “but a very important one.”

Building Reconciliation Forum

From left, Baptiste; Shawna Cunningham, Jacqueline Ottmann, Dru Marshall and Bensler in Winnipeg.

Heather Bensler