By Glenda McCarthy
As Team Strong was getting ready to fly from St. John’s to Montreal, Quebec for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Canada’s premier curling event for women, second Jessica Cunningham could have been forgiven for thinking less about curling and more about the mechanical operation of the aircraft she was boarding.
A graduate of the Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Technology (AMET) program, Jessica and her Newfoundland and Labrador teammates were vying for a playoff spot at the national curling event. Unfortunately, after an impressive start to the tournament, the team finished with a 4 win, 7 loss record, losing 9-4 to Rachel Homan and Team Canada in the final draw.
The 22-year-old St. John’s native comes from a family of national curlers and has been involved in the sport since the age of four. Her sister Jennifer competed in the Scotties in 2012, while her well-known mother, Cathy, is a 14-time Scotties participant who took home a bronze medal in 1997 and silver in 2003. This year marked the first time Jessica competed in the tournament, but she wasn’t alone, as she was being cheered on from the sidelines by her father and team coach, Geoff Cunningham.
When she’s not gliding down the ice, you can find Jessica working to keep aircraft soaring in the skies. But it was only by chance she discovered an interest in aircraft maintenance. She completed a co-operative education program with Cougar Helicopters while in her final year of high school and fell in love with the career.
“The co-op placement at Cougar was a pivotal point in my life,” Jessica says. “I finally decided what I wanted to do.”
She did some research on aircraft maintenance programs offered in Atlantic Canada, but quickly decided on CNA.
“I had heard CNA was the best school to go to. It was convenient that it was so close, and they had really good (tuition) rates for students. Even if you were trying to provide for yourself while in school, the scheduling was ideal.”
This was especially true for Jessica, who travelled back and forth to St. John’s on the weekends to participate in curling competitions. But she admits she was “scared to death” when she first started in the program. At the encouragement of her instructors, she stuck with it and hasn’t looked back since.
“As I learned more and more, I started to love it more and more. The teachers there really make the program. Learning from their experiences really makes you want to have your own in the industry as well. There were some teachers who had such fun experiences and I thought it was the perfect program for me.”
She says she would recommend the program to anyone with an interest in hands-on learning in a student-centred environment.
“The classes only allow a certain number of people so you get the perfect amount of one-on-one with the instructors. Everyone in the school knew you by name – that’s why I liked going to the college. Even if you weren’t in their class, they knew your name and talked to you in the halls. In university you don’t often get that one-on-one opportunity,” Jessica says.
“Being a woman in the program I would recommend it to female or male. I didn’t feel singled out at all. I was just another one of the guys and it was great. There were some points when I did need extra attention because some people are not as mechanically inclined. To get to the next level is a little bit harder, which it was for me, but I found I got the extra attention to get to the next level the same as everyone else.”
Shortly after graduating she found employment with Provincial Airlines in St. John’s, where she continues to learn new skills every day.
“My favourite part has got to be meeting a lot of new people. Being around people who are engineers, they obviously know more than an apprentice does and they have no problem sitting down during the day to talk to you about what’s going on and how everything works.”
And being located in St. John’s has afforded her the opportunity to continue curling. When not at work, she can be found on the ice three to four hours a day, reaching for her goal of a national title.