Olivia Arnal slowly negotiates a one-ton truck down one of the trails that wend their way throughout the sprawling Bircham Ranch, a short drive south of the village of Piapot in southwest Saskatchewan. Calving season is in full swing. For a few weeks Arnal will serve as a weekend ranch hand, commuting from the University of Regina until she writes her final exams that will bring her post-secondary experience to a close. Once she completes the requirements for her degree, the Cypress Hills ranch will become home.

Arnal’s two-way radio crackles with updates from Wayne and Erin Bircham, and their sons Leigh and Jordan, about calves newly born, of cows about to give birth, and their locations. With about 850 cows – mostly Black Angus, some Herefords and Angus-Hereford crosses – giving birth from mid-March to mid-April, the season is a continual round of watching, waiting and helping with a difficult birth when necessary.

Arnal with University of Regina President Vianne Timmons.

(Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

An uncommonly cold spring means the mothers and their new calves must be moved inside one of the barns to improve the calves’ chance of survival. With an average of two calves dropping every hour, all hands are engaged in a hectic cycle of moving the new-borns and their mothers inside, then moving them out the following day. Although calving season has the rewards of bringing new babies into the world, Arnal explains, it often means next to no sleep, enduring cold weather, dealing with defensive mama cows and helping babies who need an extra pull coming out or a push to learn how to nurse properly.

The reality that she is about to graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration is something Arnal marvels at, given the depths of tragedy she and her family have experienced.

Arnal’s fiancé, Leigh Bircham, rides up to her truck on a quad after making his rounds checking cows. Across a rolled down window, Arnal and Bircham discuss the next chores. Bircham was born to ranch – the long days don’t bother him and he enjoys the different jobs that come with the seasons. For Arnal, a weekend at the ranch is a refreshing escape from her life as a student in the Hill School of Business at the University of Regina. “I love the fresh air, and I don’t have to think about what to wear. The work dictates that. There’s only one thing to do,” she adds, “and that is to help with the calving.”

Arnal checks a group of expectant cows from her living room. The ranch, located in the Cypress Hills in southwestern Saskatchewan is home to 850 cows.

(Photo by Don Hall)

The reality that she is about to graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration (with a major in Accounting and a certificate in Economics) is something Arnal marvels at, given the depths of tragedy she and her family have experienced. When she was eight years old the family home on their ranch at Ravenscrag burned to the ground, although everyone was able to escape uninjured. Tragedy struck just a few years later when one of her older brothers, Blake, died in a farm accident. Then, just a few weeks before she was to begin classes at the University, two younger brothers, Sean and Lyndon, died when the tractor they were riding in crashed while going down a hill toward home.

The loss was absolutely devastating for Arnal; however, she never contemplated postponing university, as some people suggested. One reason for continuing on, she says, was her memory of one of her last conversations with her brother Sean. “He called me and was quizzing me about getting into the U of R,” she says. “The pride in his voice that day is something I’ve taken with me each and every day I set foot in the Hill School. It is a fond, yet emotional, memory.”

“If it had not been for the supportive and caring faculty in the Hill School I would not have made it through the first semester, let alone earned a degree,” Arnal says.

Arnal demonstrated her enthusiasm for learning early. While she was still in Grade 12 she asked if she could sit in on a Business 100 class. Bruce Anderson, now executive lead, External, and a lecturer in Strategy and Policy with the Faculty of Business Administration, was teaching the course in the winter 2014 semester. Anderson, says he remembers the class and Arnal, because, requests from high school students for a “test drive” are rare. He recalls being impressed with Arnal’s poise and intellect and calls her a rising star. She was impressed, too: she decided she wouldn’t entertain going anywhere but the University of Regina. (Her mother Anne confides that she worried her daughter might be taking on too much by heading off to university, “… but what Olivia decides to do, she makes happen.”)

“If it had not been for the supportive and caring faculty in the Hill School I would not have made it through the first semester, let alone earned a degree,” Arnal says. Her positive experience also prompted her to revise her original plan to spend three years studying business, and then transfer to the Law program at the University of Saskatchewan. She fell in love with the Hill School, and with business, she says.

Arnal with her grandpa-in-law, 86-year old Ralph Bircham.

(Photo by Don Hall)

In addition to her classes she also jumped into volunteer activities on campus, continuing a practice cultivated during her high school years. She was a member of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at Eastend School, a K-12 school with about 100 students. She served as president of the SRC in Grade 11 and was active in the local Students Against Drunk Driving chapter. She also took a leadership role in establishing WE-Day within the school. WE-Day is an international movement that brings people together to make positive changes in the world. Arnal and her classmates helped organize a series of WE-Day fund-raisers that resulted in a $10,000 donation to help build a school in Kenya.

"Olivia puts her heart and soul into everything she does,” President Vianne Timmons observes.

In recognition of her volunteer activities, Arnal was one of ten recipients to receive a 2014 Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award. When University of Regina President Vianne Timmons noticed a news item about the award, and saw that Arnal planned to attend the University, she sent Arnal a note inviting her to meet her.

Arnal admits to some trepidation before meeting Timmons, holding off until after Christmas to follow up on the invitation. She even borrowed some money from her mother to buy a new outfit, and concentrated on doing her best to be prim and proper when they met. During that first meeting Timmons asked Arnal to pop in for a visit at least once a semester, and the relationship flourished. “Olivia puts her heart and soul into everything she does,” Timmons observes. “Once, on short notice, she went to an event in Ottawa as a student ambassador representing the University. When she returned she took the time to debrief me about what she’d observed.”

Arnal’s mother Anne Howe
Arnal’s mother Anne Howe. (Photo by Don Hall)

Besides contributing as a student ambassador, Arnal served as the special events coordinator for the University’s Student Success Centre, participated in the UR Guarantee program, and served as a tutor with UR International, helping ESL students learn English.

She is also a founder and director of the Arnal Boys Memorial Bursary for Young Farmers, which the family established in 2014 to assist young people between eight and 18 with their agriculture-related projects. The bursary provides grants of up to $5,000 for young people attending school in southwestern Saskatchewan who are looking to buy farm animals or equipment to advance their projects. “In the first year I hoped we would be able to give out $3,000, but we awarded $45,000, and the amount continues to grow,” Arnal says. She credits the fund’s rapid development to the good advice she received from several of her professors.

That first semester Arnal wasn’t able to take Bruce Anderson’s Business 100 class because of a scheduling conflict, but he and associate professor Wallace Lockhart were “adamant” that she participate in competitions with other business schools, such as the Inter-Collegiate Business Competition (ICBC).

In her second year she was a member of the Hill School marketing team that made it to the second round. (Each year ICBC challenges more than 170 student teams from over 40 business schools in Canada and beyond to solve business cases in several categories. Six teams in each competitive event are invited to a final round, hosted at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario).

Olivia Arnal and Amanda Kostur
Arnal and Amanda Kostur celebrate their first place finish at the Inter-Collegiate Business Competition at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Arnal was hooked by the experience. Although her team did not make it to the final round she resolved to try again. After spending a month at the Paris School of Business in June 2017 with fellow fourth-year student Amanda Kostur, the two teamed up to enter the accounting competition in their final year.

Working with their faculty coach Nola Joorisity, who lectures in Business and Accounting, the two spent many late nights preparing a written submission that won them the opportunity to compete at Kingston, in January 2018. Combining their complementary skill sets and interests, Kostur and Arnal took a holistic approach to their business case challenge, and it worked; the judges awarded them first place. Later, at a celebration in Regina Joorisity described the pair as poised, polished, articulate, professional and engaging in their presentation. “They didn’t just do the accounting numbers, but also considered the marketing, human resources, operations and strategy.”

Students participating in ICBC competitions draw plenty of interest from prospective employers, but Arnal had already begun scoping out employers well before ICBC. In her usual thorough way, Arnal developed a spreadsheet so that she could research and analyze the values and other qualities of potential employers. She also spent considerable time discussing possible career paths and understanding her own values with Eric Dillon, the Chief Executive Officer of Conexus Credit Union.

Arnal and her fiancé, Leigh Bircham, check on some cows.
Arnal and her fiancé, Leigh Bircham, check on some cows. (Photo by Don Hall)

While the Hill School has a formal mentoring program that matches students with business leaders, the partnership between Arnal and Dillon developed informally. “I heard her speak at a Leader’s Council event,” Dillon says, “and I knew I had to meet her personally. She truly stood out from her peers, and she is a great example of what the business leaders of tomorrow will look like - driven, purposeful, humble, and centred around making a difference in the world.”

Arnal eventually narrowed her employer search to Innovation Credit Union, dropping in at branches around southwestern Saskatchewan, asking employees what they liked or didn’t like about their jobs, and if they thought they were reaching their full potential. As a result of her comprehensive investigation, she began as a relationship manager trainee for Innovation, working out of the credit union head office at Swift Current. “My dream has been to work with agriculture and small business clients and help them achieve success,” she says. “Innovation is the place that best allows me to see my dream flourish.”

Reflecting on her four years at the University, Arnal expresses gratitude for all of the support that she received, including a University of Regina Retirees Legacy Scholarship, a Paul and Carol Hill Scholarship in Business Ethics and a Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce Award. Then, there is the emotional support: what she describes as a circle that includes “… many professors and staff, and of course Vianne, which has really and truly saved me. Many family and close friends of the boys struggle with heartache,” she adds, “and I was worried starting university that it was something that might overcome me. Because I chose the University of Regina - and I guess the University of Regina chose me - I’ve been able to survive, and that is a debt which I will never be able to fully repay. The University will forever be the place that helped me grow.”

About the Author

Bill Armstrong is a Regina freelance writer and amateur photographer with a strong interest in Saskatchewan history.