Surpassing her hopes and dreams

Human and Social Development

- Stephanie Harrington


As a girl, Adrienne Carlson couldn’t imagine attending university. Raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, Carlson quit school in grade 11.

“I thought, there’s no point going to high school because I wouldn’t be going to university,” she says.

At age 17, she moved out of home. Two years later, Carlson enrolled in a course to become a health care assistant in a nursing home, where she worked for 12 years before the job’s physical demands left her with chronic pain.

Now raising a young daughter on her own, Carlson was caught in the same cycle of financial hardship her mother had experienced. Carlson decided to go back to school, eventually enrolling in an associate degree in general arts at Camosun College before transferring to UVic to study for a Bachelor of Social Work, which she completed in 2014.

Already far exceeding her own childhood expectations, Carlson didn’t stop there. In November, she will receive a Master of Social Work Indigenous specialization (MSWI) at UVic’s fall convocation. Carlson is looking forward to shaking the Chancellor’s hand and holding her hard-earned diploma. Her daughter will be in the audience, cheering her on.

“I recently turned 50 and took the opportunity to really reflect on my life to this point, and I realize I have accomplished far more than I could have ever hoped or dreamed,” she says.

Even before graduating, Carlson secured a fulltime job with Island Health as a social worker for seniors’ mental health in a specialized unit at the Royal Jubilee Hospital. She also recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of homeownership.

Life, in short, is good, but the journey here has been full of twists and turns.

Challenges and revelations  

Carlson’s undergraduate studies coincided with a particularly tumultuous period of her life. Forced to withdraw from her classes to rebuild her life after leaving an abusive relationship, she credits support from faculty members in the School of Social Work for helping her finish her degree.

“It took a lot longer to finish my BSW,” she says. “I could see the finish line. I had two courses left. But I wasn’t sure if I could get student loan funding.”

Over this time, Carlson also grappled with a fundamental change to her identity. When at Camosun College, she serendipitously ended up in a class with her half-sister, whom she had never met. Their bond was quick, and Carlson learned that she had Indigenous ancestry, which had been kept secret in the family. Since then, Carlson has traced her roots to northwestern Ontario.

“I still don’t know exactly where my ancestry comes from, but I know that I’m Cree. My sister is Nisga'a and her children are Snuneymuxw so I am also connected to the Nisga'a and Snuneymuxw First Nations,” she says.

Because she worked at a gas station part-time while completing her undergrad, Carlson missed out on valuable work experience in her field. After graduating with her bachelor’s, she was competing for jobs with people with far more experience. Carlson found work at a transition house for women and children leaving domestic abuse for several years before becoming a family housing outreach worker, a job she loved but that didn’t provide her with the wage or security she wanted.

“I said, ‘I think I need a master’s degree to get the good Island Health jobs,’” she says. “Two years later, I manifested exactly that.”

Embracing identity

During graduate studies, Carlson had the opportunity to delve more into her identity as part of her master’s Indigenous specialization. Her place in the program helped affirm her identity.

There are people who don’t know where they come from. They may never find out, but that doesn’t make them less Indigenous. It was so validating for me to hear that.”

—UVic Master of Social Work graduate Adrienne Carlson

School of Social Work Professor Jeannine Carriere says the program has been instrumental in supporting Indigenous social work students to accomplish their dreams for their families, communities and nations.

“As an Indigenous faculty member it has been an honor to witness their success,” she says. “I have known Adrienne throughout her BSW and MSWI and have admired her tenacity during adverse times and how she maintained her goals to make a difference in people’s lives through her social work education and practice.”

Lived experience

Carlson, who is in the process of starting her own counselling practice, says the challenges in her life have made her a more empathetic social worker.

“A lot of the time I have had a lot of the shared lived experiences so I’m able to support them [clients]. I can say, I’m so sorry, I truly understand what it’s like,” she says.

Although she had never envisioned herself as a social worker, Carlson can look back on her studies and appreciate just how far she has come. And how far she will still go.

“I can honestly say that even 10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine having a master’s degree, purchasing a home, having a job that I love and a secure future to look forward to,” she says.


In this story

Keywords: convocation, student life, Indigenous, social work

People: Adrienne Carlson, Jeannine Carrier

Publication: The Ring

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