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  • Joy SpearChief-Morris

Once a Mustang, Always a Mustang: Heading to Graduate School

So I have been keeping a little secret from most of you!

When I decided to come back to London, a bit part of that was deciding to go back for my Master's degree. When I graduated from Western University with my Bachelor's degree in 2017, I knew that I wanted to go back for graduate school eventually, but I believed that to be an Olympic athlete I needed to put that dream on hold and pursue athletics full time. I also needed a little break from school. I took all five years of university eligibility to complete my degree and majoring in history with a minor in First Nations studies meant that my program was very reading and writing intense, and frankly, a little a exhausting at the end. I love reading and I love to write so I really did enjoy my program, but it has taken me until very recently to finally get be able to read for enjoyment again and not feel like I "have" to finish a book for a class assignment.

I am going to let you in on another one of my nerdy quirks. I. LOVE. School. I really love learning about something that inspires, motivates, or captivates me. I also loved writing research papers in school. What I don't necessarily enjoy is test taking, but that's just part of the deal.

Around this time last year I was realizing that I wasn't feeling fulfilled in my life. I felt overworked with things I didn't want to do and bored in many of the other aspects of my life. I wasn't working towards the type of career I wanted. I was in a weird limbo between undergrad and graduate school, mixing track in it all, and trying to find out truly what were my next steps when it came to the career I wanted for myself. I couldn't get the type of jobs I wanted with only my bachelor's degree, and those that were available in a remotely similar field, I couldn't do and train at the same time. Now, I am a planner by nature and I had this very clear idea of how I saw my life working out: graduate from Western, be a full time athlete, make the Olympics, then go to Columbia University for a Masters in Public Policy (or also known as an MPP). I didn't believe I could mess with that order and I didn't think going to the kind of graduate school I saw myself attending and still training as a full time athlete went together either.

Well, I have mentioned this before, but I will say it again. I really had to learn that my path to success and my path to the life I want to have for myself does not have be done in the way I thought. I don't have to do things the way people say I do because "that is the way things are done," if it isn't right for me. I can do things my own way, I can have the things I want in my life and want for myself and be happy with how I do them, even if they're a little different. My path is mine, and that is what is right for me. I can go to graduate school AND train for the Olympics.

I had always said that I didn't want to do a Master's program for the sake of doing a Master's program, and pursuing a Master's in history had never really appealed to me. So if I was going to do a graduate program, I knew it had to be something that I was passionate about. My passion has always been in Indigenous issues and rights in Canada. I have also, for quite some time, been interested in a career that focuses on Indigenous policy in Canada. But by closing myself off to only wanting to go to an Ivy league school years from now, I was truly limiting my ability to work towards a career, or feel fulfillment in other aspects of my life, in the present. I was constantly being told that I needed to have (relevant) work experience to even apply to an elite MPP program, and with training as a full-time athlete, my opportunities to gain that kind of work experience were very limited. I found I was constantly hitting road blocks where I was in California. So, when I decided to come back to London, one of the first things I did (before looking for a place to live or even a job), was look into graduate programs at Western University. I looked for guidance from one of my mentors, Janice, who suggested I look into sociology programs.

One day last summer I was sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Barbara, scrolling through Western's sociology website looking at their graduate programs and waiting for something that would spark my passion when I came across Western's Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. The Centre for Transitional Justice is a cross-departmental research centre at Western that "focuses on issues including reconciliation, criminal accountability, post-colonial legacies, legal reconstruction, the environment, human rights, economic justice, healing circles, democratization, and more." It offers specializations at the graduate level in several departments at Western. When I found this specialization program, I knew this was the type of program I wanted to pursue. I didn't really know what transitional justice was, and I wanted to know more about pursuing a Master's with this specialization (because I still wasn't completely convinced), so I emailed every professor listed in the Centre for Transitional Justice that had a research focus that was even remotely related to Indigenous research (which I knew was going to be my primary focus of whatever I chose to do my Master's in). I emailed them giving a small bit of information of who I was and asked if they were willing to meet with me to discuss their research and the program. Of all the professors I emailed, every one except two agreed to meet with me.

By the time I was back in London in September, I was already meeting professors in the Centre and learning more about doing graduate research at Western. After I would meet one professor they wound up sending me to meet someone else that they knew as well. I wound up in the political science department with the Founding Director for the Centre. Walking out of her office after meeting her, I knew I wanted to work with her and pursue a Master's in political science.

Once I decided to apply for the political science graduate program, things started to fall into place for me. In October I pitched an idea I had to the Community Outreach Coordinator at Western's Indigenous Services, named Amanda, about the annual youth Indigenous Track and Field Day put on by Indigenous Services and the Western Track and Field Team. I had volunteered with the event during my three years on the track team and I always loved what the event did for youth. After my experience with Wings of America, I felt like I could really contribute to the event in a more meaningful way and I came to Amanda with my ideas on how I wanted to help make the event even better. I told her I would volunteer my time for free just to be involved. Instead, what happened was I ended up getting hired to work at Indigenous Services (right as I was about to desperately take a retail job instead), to help Amanda coordinate the event and work in the Indigenous Services Centre. Working at Indigenous Services, which right now is an office run entirely by Indigenous women, and amongst all of the students who come into the Centre every day has truly been such a rewarding experience. It is such a positive space to enter every day and I have felt so great about myself and what I am doing working there. Indigenous Services have been so supportive of me and my training and I am so grateful I was able to find this.

Now because I didn't do my undergraduate degree in political science, I was required to fulfil a few base level pre-requisites in order to apply for the graduate program. One course I recently completed this past semester and another I am taking over this summer. Being back in school, even for one course, while working at Indigenous Services, and still training at the same level of commitment I was before, has kept me incredibly busy these six months. But for once, I am busy doing things that I feel excited, happy, and passionate about in every aspect of my life. I don't feel busy (well, except when all my deadlines happen to fall on the same week), I feel so much more fulfilled.

The course I wound up taking this semester focused on politics and mass media. Although I was a little reluctant to be in a 2000 level course after having already graduated, the course has actually inspired me to start thinking about the possibilities of a career in political journalism. Now I don't know if that will be the career choice I will end up taking, I am still figuring that out, but I am really enjoying having all these possibilities for my future right now.

At the end of February, I received my acceptance into Western's Masters of Political Science Program and I intend to specialize in Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. I am so excited to be heading back to school full-time in September. I never thought I would be doing a Master's in political science, or a Master's at Western, or doing a Master's while still on the path of pursuing my Olympic dream, but I honestly wouldn't have it any other way. I am excited for this next step in my future and I am excited to continue pursuing my dream, my own way.

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