Alberta University Sprinter Balances Athletic Success, Leadership

Eight athletes line up on the starting line. A hush falls over the crowd in the Universiade Pavilion. Fifth-year Golden Bears sprinter Evan Essapa does one last look to his left and right as he lines up his feet in the starting block. His heart is pounding, and the adrenaline kick is just hitting.

Essapa knows this 60-metre sprint will last less than seven seconds. If he wants to finish in the top three, it has to be 6.8 seconds or less. He's spent the last five years putting in countless hours in the gym and on the track, training for moments like this.

And yet, this isn't the biggest test Essapa is facing. A science graduate and current master's student, he has dedicated a great deal of his life and academic pursuits to bettering the Black community, both at the University of Alberta and in the greater Edmonton area.

Fearless, driven, caring

Three defining characteristics are immediately obvious about Essapa — he's a fearless competitor, he's incredibly driven and he cares deeply about his community.

After graduating from the Faculty of Science in 2022, he moved immediately into a master's degree in counselling psychology. His subsequent academic work and community involvement over that time speak to each of those traits. His graduate research is focused on mental health disparities among Canadian immigrants, he created a website to connect the Black community with Black professionals, he has been a wellness coach for the Experiential Learning in Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (ELITE) Program for Black Youth on campus, and he developed a 10-week mental health therapy program for Black individuals — all while juggling the demands of being a full-time student-athlete.

"Evan is an amazing young man. Certainly somebody with a high level of self-awareness; he genuinely cares about his teammates and the people around him," says Wes Moerman, head coach of the U of A track and field program. "We ask our athletes to be a part of something bigger than themselves. He has been quiet about the incredible work he is doing in the community, and I think that speaks to his character and who he is as a person."

A native of Bordeaux, France, Essapa and his family immigrated to Regina in 2015 when he was 14 years old. Like many who find their way to Canada, the Essapa family was looking for a better life and a fresh start.

His passion for bettering his community is something he can trace back to his parents, who are originally from the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire.

"Since I was very young, my dad always taught me that community is very important. That was what made him so successful. My parents have always been very involved, back to when we were in France and Regina, and I'm trying to do the same — tying everything I do to my community and the Black community in general," he says.

Though his family improved their way of life by moving to Canada, Essapa still noticed something about the struggles Black people face in Canada, and at the U of A — mainly, a lack of focus on mental health.

"I think the biggest thing for the Black community that I understood was that we don't really talk about mental health, we kind of just avoid it. So for me it was finding ways to reach out to the Black community, bring a little bit of awareness and better the mental health of Black Canadians in general."

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