Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Grad builds on her skills by tapping creative energy

Megan Culbert puts final finish on Millwork and Carpentry program

When the pandemic put the world on standstill in spring 2020, Megan Culbert was one of the thousands of Albertans left out of work and pondering what was next.

At age 24, Culbert (Millwork and Carpentry ’21) had always planned on going back to school but the lockdowns and uncertainty around in-person learning gave her pause since all the programs that interested her were hands-on.

“My options were either come to school and just embrace whatever the year had to offer, or go out and struggle to find another job.”

“My options were either come to school and just embrace whatever the year had to offer, or go out and struggle to find another job when jobs just aren’t readily available,” she says.

Megan Culbert in the wood shopBy choosing school and NAIT, Culbert sought to fulfill goals both practical and personal. Growing up on the family farm, she enjoyed working with her hands and the country is where she wanted to ply a trade. Farm life also nurtured her creative spirit, such as the time she and her brother built their own treehouse of scrap boards and leftover nails.

“It was more dreaming and playing than real woodworking,” she remembers, “but as I got older I focused a lot more on art and being creative.”

“When you have a creative mindset, you can make anything you dream up.”

Her dad, whom Culbert called “an inventor” because he was always creating gadgets for the farm or play features such as a swingset and merry go round, was another inspiration. “I got to grow up creating and building with him and seeing how, when you have a creative mindset, you can make anything you dream up.”

She decided the one-year Millwork and Carpentry certificate program would put those skills to the test – with the potential of earning a good income close to home, hopefully building custom furniture or cabinets. What she couldn't have predicted, however, was how the very source of her anxiety about school, the pandemic, actually contributed to her creative growth.

Leaving home during COVID “a bit scary”

A cabinet built by Megan CulbertLeaving Sedgewick, a quiet farming community two hours southeast of Edmonton, for the city was intimidating at the best of times. During COVID-19, that felt extra daunting.

“Not knowing when it’s alright to go home and see family and the isolation of it all is pretty scary,” Culbert says.

Those worries would lessen after starting her program and seeing how a blended learning model, which emphasized virtual where possible and hands-on when essential, would actually work.

“I actually found it convenient some days, just working from the comfort of my own home.”

For Millwork and Carpentry, that meant working in the shop where Culbert would immerse herself in building projects such as an ornate wooden toolbox, hat shelf and two-piece cabinet.

It was a welcome change from her old office job pre-COVID, which cemented her decision to work with her hands. She particularly enjoyed blueprinting class, which allowed her to flex her drawing skills and create something “that’s actually going to be brought to life.”

Even though she came to NAIT for practical experience and was leery of online instruction initially, it ended up suiting her schedule and lifestyle. Any intimidation she felt about virtual dissipated within a few weeks, she says.

“I actually found it convenient some days, just working from the comfort of my own home. That didn’t end up being a barrier for me.”

Creative pursuits

Drawing by Megan CulbertThe extra time was also an opportunity for Culbert to further explore her artistic sensibilities through painting and drawing on top of woodworking. The absence of family or peer groups she’d normally socialize with in person after school meant Culbert had a lot of spare time on her hands. She drew her first portrait last summer and continued to practice during the school year by referring to photos of friends, many of which she’d give away as Christmas gifts.

These artistic pursuits also had mental health benefits, taking her mind off the stresses of living through the worst pandemic in a century. “You just need to kind of escape. Turning some music on, honing in and focusing on something like that is definitely a good stress reliever.”

Culbert enjoyed her NAIT experience so much she decided to go for her Cabinetmaker journeyperson ticket. She already landed an apprenticeship at a cabinet shop back home, working with “people that I know and most likely working in a lot of homes of people I know, which is going to be really cool.”

After a surreal year that “felt a little bit like a dream,” it’s a return to normalcy Culbert craves.

“Convocation this year just feels like a relief. Not that school wasn’t enjoyable, but it’s just a close of another chapter. And it means we get to start a new one.”

“It’s just a close of another chapter. And it means we get to start a new one.”

Megan Culbert at the family farm near Sedgewick, AB


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