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Sask. great-grandmother realizes her dream of graduating from college

Shirley Irwin of Cote First Nation received her Bachelor of Indigenous Fine Arts from the University of Regina this week

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Decades after her first (and brief) postsecondary excursion, Shirley Irwin returned to the classroom to fulfill her lifelong dream: becoming a college graduate.

On Saturday, the 63-year-old great-grandmother walked across the stage to receive her Bachelor of Indigenous Fine Arts from the University of Regina.

Irwin faced challenges along her journey, but persevered.

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“At first I thought I was too old because everyone there had young children,” she said. “I was a little intimidated. But after a while I didn’t care anymore, I just wanted to learn.”

Irwin – from the Cote First Nation, about 90 kilometers northeast of Yorkton – has eight children, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“I wanted to prove to my grandchildren and children, and anyone else, that you’re not too old to go back to school,” she said.

“You can do it.”

Irwin actually started her teaching journey thirty years ago. She attended college for a year and a half in the 1990s, but dropped out to earn a living for her family.

She worked for the City of Regina as a transit bus operator for 17 years before taking early retirement.

Welcomed and respected by fellow students

However, retirement did not completely satisfy the ambitious grandmother.

“I wanted to go back and finish my college classes,” Irwin said.

“It was a big adjustment because I hadn’t been to school since the 1990s. There was a lot of reading and writing, learning to use a laptop, writing essays – and not short ones.”

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During her classes, she was surrounded by other students her grandchildren’s ages. Irwin even took lessons with her granddaughter.

It turned out to be mutually beneficial. Irwin helped her granddaughter get to early morning classes on time, and her granddaughter helped with some of the modern challenges of attending college.

Although initially intimidated by being decades older than other students, she was surprised by her reception on campus. Her classmates were both welcoming and very respectful.

“They were all good to me,” Irwin said. “Some of them called me elder or kokum.

“A young student wanted me to guide him, to share my knowledge with him,” she added jokingly. “I asked him, ‘What knowledge?'”

During her four years at the school, Irwin’s family continually encouraged and supported her, even when she wanted to drop out, she said.

“I was surprised she wanted to go back, but I encouraged her to do it,” said Megan Melenchuk, one of Irwin’s daughters.

“I was able to help her through it because I was at school myself.”

Irwin’s return to school had a profound impact on their entire family, said Melenchuk, who is in recovery for addiction issues.

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“Having her in school continued to encourage me to continue my recovery,” she said. “I wanted to support my mother as much as she supported me in my life.”

There were plenty of family challenges during Irwin’s return to school, Melenchuk said, but the family stayed together and supported each other. They even found humor in some challenges. Despite the highs and lows, Irwin says she is very proud of her decision to return to school, so much so that she is considering returning again to earn her Masters in Indigenous Studies.

“A lot of people told me they were very inspired by me,” Irwin said. “They are proud that I have taken and achieved this big step.”

With the class work done, the only thing on her mind on the way to Saturday’s ceremony was the stairs. She said she was “very excited” about the convocation, but had one concern.

Irwin said in the days leading up to the ceremony, “I just hope I don’t stumble.”

NC Raine is a local journalism initiative reporter at Eagle Feather News. The LJI program is federally funded by the Government of Canada.

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