Supporting ’an extra education’ through athletics

Varsity sports taught this CEO and Engineering alumnus valuable life lessons. Now he’s paying it forward with an annual award for deserving student-athletes.

Office of Advancement

When Michael Soligo (MASc ’84, BASc ’83) started his civil engineering degree at the University of Waterloo, he decided to put his passion for football on the backburner to focus on his studies. But that didn’t last long.

"The first year, I actually did not play because I was so concerned about the rigours of engineering at Waterloo," the alumnus says. "But I found that I missed playing so much."

By second year, he had joined the varsity team and was surprised by the results.

"It was very difficult to balance everything, but I found that it made me more focused. I knew I only had a certain amount of time to do my studies, prepare for exams, do all my assignments, go to practice, play the game - so it helped me stay organized."

Now, in his role as president and CEO of environmental engineering consultancy RWDI , Michael is channelling his experience as a student-athlete into an annual gift that empowers Waterloo students to pursue high-level athletics while managing the many demands of university life.
 

Helping student-athletes excel in the classroom and on the field

As part of the Circle Program , consisting of generous annual donors who give between $1,000 and $24,999 to the University, Michael’s company funds a scholarship for student-athletes at Waterloo.

Each year, the RWDI Engineering and Athletics Excellence Award goes to one deserving full-time undergraduate student-athlete in the Faculty of Engineering. Award candidates must be on a varsity team, have an average of 80% or higher and demonstrate positive impact through extracurricular or volunteer activities.

"We do ask that the award winners be Academic All-Canadians because it does show tremendous commitment on their part to do well scholastically and still meet the demands of varsity sport," Michael says.

Fueling lifelong achievement

The ability to perform at a high level - in sports, in academics and in life - has served Michael well in his career. After stepping into the role of president and CEO in 2008, he grew RWDI from a small Canadian firm into an internationally recognized organization with almost 700 employees and 26 offices worldwide.

In 2022, he was among 54 new Fellows elected into the Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE) for outstanding contributions to his field.

Michael says his early experiences as a student-athlete set him up for success in his profession. Likewise, in his day-to-day work, he sees firsthand how high-level extracurriculars teach students important life lessons that help them thrive in the workplace.

"I do find that playing a sport at a high level - or doing anything at a high level outside of your scholastics - makes for a very well-rounded person," he says. "You’re learning how to win, how to lose, how to play on a team, how to contribute to something bigger than yourself, all at a much more rapid pace than if you didn’t have these demands on your time. It’s an extra education that sports gives us."

The power of paying it forward

On top of connecting him to a large group of friends outside of his engineering cohort - many of whom are still part of his professional network today - Michael says belonging to the varsity football community exposed him to different perspectives that helped him learn more about himself and the world around him.

His goal with the scholarship is to ensure that student-athletes have access to the same community-building, academic and athletic opportunities that he did during his time at Waterloo - without the financial burden. Acknowledging how difficult it can be to work part-time and self-fund your studies while playing varsity sports, he says the money is intended to help recipients stay focused on what matters.

"My hope is that the award will allow student-athletes to excel at whatever they want to excel at. And then hopefully they will give back and help however they can. That’s really what it’s all about. Generosity perpetuates itself, I think."