Lacombe to the Lower Mainland: How Laura MacTaggart navigates UBC as a graduate student-athlete

Lacombe is a city of roughly 13,000 people in central Alberta. For some, it's a town that you drive past on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway. For Laura MacTaggart, Lacombe is home.

Playing volleyball has always come naturally to MacTaggart, a master's of Indigenous community planning student in the School of Community and Regional Planning and member of the women's volleyball team.

How it all started

"I was six feet tall when I was 12," said MacTaggart. She started playing club volleyball in grade five and hasn't stopped since.

In addition to her love for volleyball, growing up on a farm outside of Lacombe shaped MacTaggart's passion for sustainability. In high school, one of her teachers started an environmental club that she joined. "I just remember feeling like the world opened up. These conversations were so big and so important," said MacTaggart as she recalled when the club attended a water literacy conference in Kananaskis, Alberta.

"I felt a kind of fire light inside of me, the same way I felt a fire about volleyball."

Laura MacTaggart profile

When it came time to think about playing volleyball at the collegiate level, "it seemed a no-brainer to be looking at UBC," said MacTaggart. It wasn't just because the women's volleyball team was coming off six straight national championships, or that Doug Reimer, the head coach, was one of the best in the country, but also because MacTaggart wanted to get a new perspective on environmental sustainability.

"I was looking for a program that was interesting for me because I was not just interested in the sciences or the social sciences, but something in between," said MacTaggart.

"Doug actually flagged this small program down for me in land and food systems (LFS), called global resource systems."

Laura MacTaggart profile

The program emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to natural and agricultural resources — precisely the type of balance MacTaggart was looking for.

Her journey as a T-Bird

MacTaggart signed with UBC ten years ago in 2012. Since then, it's been a whirlwind filled with studying, injuries and victory.

In MacTaggart's fourth year, the women's volleyball team was in Toronto for the U Sports National Championships. They defeated the Western Mustangs and the Trinity Western Spartans and were now fighting for gold.

This game was special for MacTaggart. Not only was it her last game, as she was planning on leaving the team the next year, but the team had the opportunity to bring home UBC's eleventh national championship. Not to mention, MacTaggart would be playing against the University of Alberta Pandas — a team filled with her old teammates from her home province.

Her family was at the game and the stands were full. Excitement filled the air as the T-Birds prepared for the decisive match.

After winning the first two sets and coming off of a third set loss, the T-Birds and the Pandas were neck-and-neck during the fourth set. A serve from UBC's Danielle Brisebois led to an overpass from the Pandas and a kill by MacTaggart.

She scored the last point of that game.

The UBC women's volleyball team were yet again the national champions for the first time since 2008.

"We had all worked so hard and for me personally, it was a big triumph because I had overcome a really bad concussion and an ankle reconstruction," she said.

Laura MacTaggart profile

Not just a volleyball player, but a scholar

For MacTaggart, her time at UBC was not just defined by athletics, but also by academics. She went on exchange to Université Laval in Quebec City and did a self-directed SEEDS study in her fifth year.

There, MacTaggart was able to combine her passion for sustainability and her experience in athletics while getting to collaborate with her teammates. MacTaggart and her team explored the environmental impact of sports program and trialled a clothing recycling program with the volleyball and basketball teams at UBC's War Memorial Gym.

After leaving the women's volleyball team in 2017, MacTaggart went "cold-turkey." She stopped playing volleyball for over a year and started to do yoga instead.

"I had a bad concussion and just needed a break," said MacTaggart. "[Yoga] was really healing for my body and it was just something different."

Being on the sidelines: A coach

Though MacTaggart didn't play volleyball while back in Alberta, she started coaching for Aspire Volleyball, a training centre in Edmonton. For MacTaggart, it was a full-circle moment. She started training at Aspire the year of its founding. Being able to see the growth of the organization and to give back was "really cool."

Coaching students from grades five to eight was a new experience. "I really gained a lot of empathy for coaches because it's really not easy to break down skills and communicate them and get someone to execute that," said MacTaggart.

MacTaggart said that returning to the women's volleyball team as a player with her coaching experience allowed her to see the game in a new light and to become a better teammate.

During MacTaggart's time away from UBC, she spent two seasons as a park ranger in Northern Alberta with Alberta Parks and worked in Edmonton for a non-profit organization called the Alberta Native Friendship Centres Association as a Provincial Green Initiative Coordinator. Here, MacTaggart was able to collaborate with urban Indigenous communities by running climate change and energy efficiency programs and conferences. She also worked with Indigenous youth on community gardens and climate leadership.

Laura MacTaggart profile

"It was a pivotal point in realizing that if you want to work in sustainability, you [need to centre] Indigenous knowledge and worldviews in your work," she said.

After a year into her job with the Alberta Native Friendship Centres Association, MacTaggart decided to pursue her master's degree because she did not have formal education on Indigenous law, governance and worldview.

Back to representing the 'Birds

The programs at UBC brought MacTaggart back to Point Grey, but being able to finish out her U Sports eligibility with the T-Birds was the cherry on top.

MacTaggart's time as a graduate student with the women's volleyball team has highlighted the many ways the game has changed since her last stint with the team. The pandemic has changed the way the team practices and competes.

"Coming back [to the team] and being a more mature student, I think you realize the value and importance of being on a team," she said. "You appreciate it so much more."

"It helps you put the challenges you're facing into perspective and it helps you to be a better teammate," she said.

According to MacTaggart, her academic journey would not have looked the same if it weren't for the T-Birds.

"Playing for the volleyball team during a pandemic is about so much more than the games you play, or even the points that you score, it's about the community that you're a part of," said MacTaggart.

Laura MacTaggart profile

On the academic side of things, MacTaggart, as a second-year master's student and an Academic All-Canadian, is writing a capstone report and a practicum in community planning with Homalco First Nations. She was also working part-time in the fall and volunteers with the UBC Planning Students Association. In her words, her graduate degree has been "very busy."

The sense of community that volleyball has brought to MacTaggart is something that she cherishes. Though she is not planning on playing volleyball on a national or professional level, she is excited to coach, play recreationally and support her teammates for years to come.

The T-Birds are hosting the U Sports women's volleyball championships next year. Is it the first time UBC is hosting since the 1982/83 season.

"I would really love to be here for that and to be able to be in the crowd with other alumni to support the girls," said MacTaggart.

Taking a step back from playing volleyball and becoming a UBC alumnus is something that MacTaggart is looking forward to.

"I think volleyball will always be a part of my life," said MacTaggart.

As MacTaggart matured, she witnessed the maturation of the university athletics, specifically the women's volleyball team, alongside her. They've grown together.

"The wonderful thing about being on a varsity team, or on any team, it [that] even when your formal time with a group is done, you're still part of the team when you leave," said MacTaggart. "I'm really excited to be an [alumnus]. I'm ready to come and be at games and cheer and support those younger girls. It's just the next stage of being a T-Bird athlete."