Overcoming life’s obstacles while pursuing an education

Survive the High River flood. Undergo non-elective heart surgery. Found a charity for flood victims. Raise a family. Start a successful business consulting practice. Run for county council. Work toward a Bachelor of Commerce degree. Serve as president of your university’s students’ union.

For most people, that would be enough to fill half a lifetime. For Athabasca University (AU) student Brandon Simmons, it’s an account of just a little more than the past five years.

Brandon Simmons, Athabasca University Students’ Union President and undergrad student.

Simmons grew up in the town of High River, Alta. The son of a construction contractor, he took up the hammer himself, forging a career as a carpenter to support his young family. However, high school football injuries had taken their toll on his body, which was numb with pain at the end of each day.

“I had to do something else to support my family,” he recalls. “I felt stuck, because I didn’t have the traditional post-secondary experience that would help me change gears. I had a mortgage, a baby on the way and I was located at least an hour from the nearest university.”

Simmons says discovering distance education at Athabasca University changed his life dramatically.

“I enrolled in Athabasca’s Bachelor of Commerce program in 2012 with an accounting major, with the intention of becoming a certified management accountant (CMA),” he says. “That changed my direction.” In early 2013 Simmons was hired by accounting firm Muth & Co LLP in High River. That job allowed me to continue my studies at AU.”

 

Restoring hope after the High River flood

High River was devastated by flooding in June 2013. Simmons’ car was incapacitated as he drove through the rising waters.

“I had a walking cast on from a torn a ligament in my ankle and I could barely budge the door open,” he recalls. “With water up to my waist, I was rescued by a trucker.”

Simmons came home to rescue what he could from a basement inundated with water. The stress of the flood revealed an underlying heart condition that required emergency surgery. He recovered, and like so many of the town’s residents, he dug in his heels and worked to rebuild. While recovery efforts addressed broad civic needs, some needs remained unmet. That’s why Simmons founded the charity, Restoring Hope.

“We focused on helping people deal with lasting reminders that they had been flooded,” Simmons says. “We found our niche in removing river silt still left on the properties and resodding yards. Once residents’ properties were restored, we believe these people found the strength to move on.”

Evolving education and getting into politics

Following the announcement that Canada would eliminate the designation of CMA in favour of Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Simmons switched educational gears.

“I was more interested in issues other than taxes, such as marketing, strategic planning, and starting my own company,” he says. “When I realized I could not complete the CMA program, my Athabasca University studies were flexible enough to allow me drop my accounting major and take additional marketing and HR courses.”

Simmons founded Accel Consulting Ltd. in 2014, working to help businesses identify and overcome the challenges required to pursue opportunities, with a focus on accounting, marketing, and business planning.

He moved to the hamlet of Duffield a year and a half ago to live closer to extended family members, all the while continuing both his consulting business and his educational goals. He ran as a candidate for councillor in the Division 5 election race in Parkland County in late 2017, coming up a little more than 100 votes shy of the elected incumbent.

“It was close,” he says. “I plan to take another run at it.”

He’s since become even more involved with politics at AU, where he became vice president of finance and administration for the Athabasca University Students’ Union in a January 2018 by-election. He was elected to serve as student union president in April.

“It’s a full 45-hour work week and very rewarding,” he says. “I’m involved in advocating on so many issues, including lobbying the federal and provincial governments to increase grants to students and funding to the university.”

Simmons notes his personal, business, and educational aspirations simply couldn’t have co-existed without the flexibility of the AU program.

“I hope to complete my commerce degree within three years,” he says. On completion of his undergrad degree, Simmons plans to continue is education in the AU MBA program.

“My education and my interactions with the professors and other students at AU continue to help me to achieve my goals.”

This story was created by Peter Kenter, Postmedia Content Works, commercial content division, on behalf of Athabasca University. It originally appeared in the National Post.