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‘If you don’t give up, you’re only going to succeed’: New graduate Carrie Commanda has travelled a life-changing road to graduation day

June 27, 2024

Carrie Commanda is a member of Nipissing First Nation in northern Ontario. Growing up, she never believed that university was an option for her: unaware of her own history and ashamed of her culture, she lacked confidence and pride.

Carrie Commanda’s ambition is to help others find their true identities: to become “successful, heard and empowered.” Photo credit: Supplied.

But Commanda’s outlook has since been completely transformed. Last week, after completing a specialist program in Indigenous studies, she graduated as a scholarship-winning member of Woodsworth College. Now, she looks forward to a future in social work, in which she will encourage other Indigenous youth to believe in themselves.

How did you come to study at U of T?

The first thing you have to keep in mind how I grew up. I moved here from Nipissing First Nation in my late teens. Our culture was very much hidden there; in fact I was ashamed of it my whole life. That pain came from the trauma I experienced growing up. I’ve come a long way, and I feel like I transformed into a different person, so much has changed. I’m a graduate and I’m not ashamed anymore.

When I first moved to Toronto, I had no real ambition. I didn’t have the confidence to succeed in anything and I moved from job to job. But at one point, during the most difficult experience of my life, my psychologist, who I still see today, encouraged me to apply to the university. She is also a part of my social work dream and her therapy has inspired me to be a therapist as well. I thought she was crazy, and that it was impossible! But I did it anyway because I was trying to better my life in any way I could.

Failure wasn’t an option, the change in my positive thinking and mind set gave me the chance at success. I never once thought about failure. I refused.

Talk about your experience in the Indigenous studies program.

When I got to UofT I was accepted into the Transitional Year Program. One of the course options to enter into the University was “Introduction to Indigenous Studies: Foundations, History and Politics.” Which was the first step into my successful school career, but also my pride as an Indigenous woman. The learning process, academia, indigenous studies together helped change my life for the better. I am so grateful for this option because without it, I’d have a harder time finding this pride, strength and confidence I feel now. The professors were amazing. Jill Carter and Brenda Wastasecoot showed me so much grace and support in class lessons and the many fantastic lectures. They both are outstanding educators. With this course I entered my first year at the University and I enrolled in the Indigenous Studies Specialist program.

How did learning about Indigenous history and culture change things for you?

I would say that the university opened the doors to finding my identity. I realized that my identity is everything. Without that you will feel lost, especially with trauma experience overlapping, I felt lost without knowing the truth of who I was...

It allowed me to open the door and accept all the things that I learned about myself, and to accept all the other people in this country who’ve experienced the same things I have. I learned about all the culture and history that has been so suppressed. I realized that I was treating myself negatively because of that, and that I had no reason to be ashamed.

Growing up, I did not even know that we were colonized people. I didn’t know I was living in poverty. And then I took all these courses, spoke with classmates, saw professors speak on all kinds of topics and realized wow — there’s so much that I didn’t know. And it’s all related to me.

Are there any courses or experiences that will stay with you?

I cried while listening to the story Brenda Wastasecoot told about her family’s experience with residential schools. I said to myself, I know that story. I had just never heard the whole thing.

My grandmother was a residential school survivor, and I learned a little bit about her experience in my younger years. But I didn’t understand how bad it was until Brenda told me. Her story was really hard to hear; I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to express it. She told me her brothers and sisters were all gone, and she was the only one left behind. She asked herself, why was I left behind? And yet the kids who went to that horrible school wanted to be the ones left behind — they didn’t want to be there. No matter how you looked at it, somebody suffered.

And I was like, you’re so brave to say that. You’re a survivor. Women are survivors of all kinds of abuse. I felt that I was the same, but that she was just able to say it out loud. She showed me that you can be a really powerful woman.

You’re about to go study in New Zealand. Tell me about that?

Over the past few years I’ve been wondering about other Indigenous people in the world besides Canada. Last year I went to Belize to study food sovereignty and land. I was able to study with the Mayan people, learning about their culture and their colonization compared to ours. And I always wondered what it would be like to study with the Maori people. So this week, I’ll be travelling to New Zealand for two weeks to connect with and learn from them. I'm excited to connect with other global indigenous people and bring home that experience and knowledge home with my peers where we can connect share and learn more about World indigenous issues and find strength together.

What would you like to do in the future?

I want to be a counsellor or social worker to help others break free from trauma the way I have, to feel the ease of pain, to experience the life of happiness they truly deserve, to help reveal their true selves.

I’m interested in applying to the Master of Social Work program for Indigenous trauma and resiliency. Because I’m a healer, and I want to help people find their true identities: to become successful, heard and empowered. My ambition is to create a place where they can do that. I would like to see more Indigenous people believing in themselves, and graduating from university.

Looking back on that first year, I had to stand on my own two feet and fight for what I wanted. I had to tell myself I could do it, just work really hard and never give up. Because if you don’t give up, you’re only going to succeed. There’s no other option.

Read the Original Article on the A&S website

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