Vanessa Gottfriedson’s journey towards earning her bachelor of arts degree in Indigenous Studies from Simon Fraser University started in 2005. Now a mother of four, Vanessa completed her degree over the course of 17 years while raising her growing family in Kamloops. After reaching her goal of finishing her courses while classes were online due to the pandemic, Vanessa and her family will celebrate her graduation with the class of 2022 this June.
During her nearly two decades as a student at Simon Fraser University, Vanessa’s life transformed in a myriad of ways. While studying at SFU, Vanessa married her husband, Justin, and together, they welcomed their four children, who are now between the ages of 12 and three. Often taking a course or two at a time, as her busy schedule allowed, Vanessa also balanced her career with her responsibilities as a mom and an undergraduate. Working in the health and medical field also inspired Vanessa to enroll at Simon Fraser University. As a medic on the oil fields of Alberta and a first aid instructor, Vanessa’s experience responding to emergencies in remote communities led her to question why she was repeatedly witnessing Indigenous people being harmed by certain health inequities. Vanessa’s sister, who was already studying Aboriginal Health at SFU at the time, recommended that Vanessa join her in the program in 2005. “I was talking with my sister about seeing certain scenarios play out as a medic working in an Indigenous community, and asking what I could do to help. She said, ‘Vanessa, you have to sign up for this program I’m taking at SFU, that’s exactly what I’m learning about.’”
Vanessa’s experiences growing up sparked her interest in learning about Canadian history, and other academic subjects, from an Indigenous perspective. “A lot of Indigenous people in rural communities haven’t had the opportunity to learn about aspects of our history, such as residential schools,” says Vanessa. “My courses in Indigenous Studies have helped me to become more open and understanding of issues impacting our communities.” Even before graduating, Vanessa has put this knowledge into practice in her previous job as a Dakelh Dene Community Engagement Coordinator with the First Nations Health Authority.
In 2020, Vanessa had finished taking transfer credits towards her degree through Thompson Rivers University and was considering moving from Kamloops to Vancouver to attend Simon Fraser University in-person. When the pandemic hit and SFU moved to online learning, Vanessa approached a challenging situation as an opportunity to achieve her goal of finishing her degree. “I jumped at the chance to take courses online. My youngest was a baby at the time, my older kids were doing school online, and my husband was working from home. It was a bit chaotic, but we made it work. I threw myself into school, and I’m glad that I was able to finish up my courses from home.”
A life-long learner, Vanessa is considering furthering her education through a master’s degree now that she has finished her BA. A variety of options, including the SFU Executive Indigenous Business and Leadership MBA, have piqued her interest. Vanessa is also passionate about starting a career where she can help her community, possibly by working with her band or returning to work with the First Nations Health Authority. As an Indigenous student, Vanessa hopes her story will encourage others to reach their goals, “I want other Indigenous students to know that even if you take a break from your studies, don’t give up because you can always finish.”
This story was originally published on the Department of Indigenous Studies website on May 31, 2022.