On finding the learning pathway from doubt to transformation

imageShe had no great aspiration to become a scholar, describing herself as not being particularly strong in school. Yet, something profound happened once Madison Wells, 28, became immersed in her online studies with the School of Public Health and Social Policy. So much so, she struggles to define it.

“I can’t quite find the words,” she says.

Her achievements, on the other hand, say it all. In 2018, she was awarded a UVic President’s Scholarship and in 2019 she made the Dean's list for achieving an excellent academic standing.

Wells grew up an only child in a small northern Ontario town that shared services with a neighbouring Indigenous community. “We went to the same school, the same shops, the same events. I always felt connected,” she says, as the two towns combined had a total population of 1,300.

After graduating high school, she longed to see the world beyond and decided to come west and study at Camosun College. She enrolled in their Community, Family and Child diploma program, thinking this would lead her toward the caring profession. That idea changed when a guest speaker from UVic came to talk to her class about what the School of Public Health and Social Policy had to offer. Joan Bowles, the school’s administrative officer, inspired Wells to rethink her choices.

“She talked to us about their undergraduate program, the research with community partners, and I thought, wow, that sounds so cool.” She would transfer into the third year of the BA program in public health with an Indigenous focus and describes that decision as “life-changing”.

“I really found my passion,” she says. “I so enjoy this learning, the theory and the depth of knowledge. I grew up with some of this understanding, which made my studies feel familiar. My mom is a feminist and so I was raised on social justice. These programs aligned with all of that.”

She talks of learning about cultural safety, how one’s identity is shaped by society, what it really means to ‘unpack white privilege’ and the value of studying diverse perspectives. “These studies set me up to open my mind. I was not conscious of it at the start, but I came to see that this learning was preparing me, putting me in a good place to learn more and to remain humble.”

She also notes that the way this online program was delivered with open discussion exploring what an anti-oppressive praxis might look like, she adds, “They’ve found a way to teach us to learn without ego.”

Her practicum further cemented this understanding. Wells went to work as a research assistant on a CIHR-funded project with a non-profit organization called Weaving our Wisdoms in partnership with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network. Here, another world was opened up to her that taught her about the Indigenous HIV community and their way of working toward wellness.

“It was absolutely incredible. I met so many Indigenous people living with AIDS. Their knowledge, beauty and strength were truly meaningful and informative. Just sseeing how people work together to support healing, the depth of meaning in the land-based teachings led by Indigenous Olders with HIV…” She pauses.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous people run the project, she explains, who are led by four ‘Olders’ living with HIV. Wells contributed to the work, taking on various tasks, though mainly overseeing data collection to support their findings.  

“Their trust in me, their willingness to bring me in, to be a welcome contributor to the project, was really powerful,” says Wells. “I feel lucky, blessed, and a little overwhelmed,” she laughs. “I’ve been relearning the world with the guidance of these generous people who are predominantly women and strong in their traditional matriarchal structure.”

Unsure of what a settler ally can accomplish within an Indigenous community, Wells says she went into the practicum with a bundle of nerves and full of questions, namely, “Do I deserve this opportunity?”

Sherri Pooyak, MSW, is an instructor and researcher with UVic’s Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement. She was Wells’ practicum supervisor and was impressed by Wells abilities.

“Madison is an exemplary student and conducted herself in the most respectful manner throughout our time working together,” said Pooyak. “She defines what an ally is and should be, as she is considerate to the needs of Indigenous people.” 

Wells’ nerves and self-doubt seemed to have vanished in the mist. When asked how that happened, she explained that it began when a professor in the BA program encouraged her to keep going with her education, telling her she was already writing at a master’s level.