June 16, 2023

UCalgary grad student makes the top 5 in 2023 SSHRC Storytellers competition

Jennifer Williamson’s entry was a poem on autism and mental health in higher education
SSHRC Storytellers finalist Jennifer Williamson in a black shirt and jeans sitting on an orange sofa
SSHRC Storytellers finalist Jennifer Williamson UCalgary archive

Jennifer Williamson, a master’s student in psychology at the University of Calgary, was recently named a top-five finalist in the 2023 SSHRC Storytellers competition.

The annual competition is open to all post-secondary students working on a project funded by SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council). Entrants are encouraged to present work in a creative format using video, audio, text or infographics. Creativity is key, and entries must be relatable, using language familiar to a general audience. The competition does not identify a single winner, so making it to the top five really means being one of five winners.

Sharing a passion for research

For Williamson, BSc'20, the competition was a perfect opportunity to showcase how meaningful their research is to them, personally. Williamson’s work focuses on students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and their experiences with mental health during their post-secondary education. As a person with ASD, Williamson knows first-hand how challenging it can be for this group of students to navigate things like anxiety and depression as a part of the post-secondary experience.

Williamson hopes their research will shine a light on the education experiences of people with ASD and will contribute to improving outcomes for those students.

“One of the main things that I think came out in my Storytellers presentation is how raw and personal this is for me,” says Williamson, whose research was represented in a poem. Where academic writing is often very detached and neutral, the Storytellers competition allows for a more personal and emotional context of the research to shine through.

“Research shows that three out of four autistic people will experience one or more mental health conditions like anxiety or depression in their lifetime,” says Williamson. “I have lived experience of this, and that helps me connect to the audience and draw them in. It’s one thing to report the statistics that three out of four autistic people experience one or more mental health conditions like depression or anxiety; it’s another thing to report that statistic and then emphasize that it scares me, angers me, saddens me – and, through that emphasis, share my passion and desire for change.”

Working with Dr. Carly McMorris, BA'06, PhD, Williamson is conducting mixed-methods research that includes both statistical and interview methods. Starting with surveys, Williamson will use standard tools like the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales or Internalized Stigma of Mental Illness Scale to understand the scope and extent of mental health issues experienced by participants. Williamson will then interview a subset of the participants to contextualize the responses.

“Doing interviews in this way centres the participants,” says Williamson. “In the world of autism research, there is a lack of voices from autistic people themselves. Qualitative interviews can help address that.”

Celebrating the Storyteller competition

Like many others with ASD, imposter syndrome is something that Williamson themself has experienced. The Storyteller competition provided them with a boost in confidence.

“I struggle with perfectionism and imposter syndrome,” Williamson confesses. “Because this was such a personal topic, and because it takes a lot of bravery to take your creative writing and show it to anyone else, it was a struggle.” As such, Williamson entered the competition very close to the deadline, without much expectation. But Williamson says it was a thrill to make it to the top 25, never mind the top five.

“Being in the top 25 was already an amazing experience,” says Williamson. “I had the chance to present at Congress, a major conference for social sciences and humanities, which was held in Toronto at York University. Hearing congratulations from people, I realized that maybe I am competent in this work! It’s a very powerful feeling.”


With Williamson, right, are fellow UCalgary storytellers Abdul Al-Shawwa, left, Noelle Gauthier and Nick Boettcher.

Penny M. Pexman

UCalgary makes a strong showing

Williamson is one of four UCalgary students who made it to the top 25 alongside Abdul Al-Shawwa, BSc'22 (Kinesiology), Nick Boettcher, BA'15 (Community Health Sciences) and Noelle Gauthier (Psychology).

The UCalgary finalists were supported with a workshop and individual feedback sessions offered by the Knowledge Engagement team in the university’s Research Services Office, the My GradSkills team in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and Libraries and Cultural Resources.  

“The one-on-one session was especially helpful,” says Williamson. “It gave me a big boost in confidence going into finals to get positive feedback and hear how much they loved the presentation!”

SSHRC Storytellers is a fantastic opportunity for students to hone their communication and knowledge translation skills, which are key to a scholar’s success when applying their research in the community, says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “We are extremely proud of these students' dedication to addressing real-world challenges through their research, and the difference they will make in their communities,” Ghali says.

Seeking research participants

Williamson is recruiting participants for their research project. If you are a student with ASD and would like to participate in the study, you are invited to reach out to enhancelab@ucalgary.ca. Learn more about the study here.

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