Sherry McCarthy’s epic journey at Vancouver Island University (VIU) began with adult education upgrades and ended with a Master of Business Administration degree.
Along the way, she also gave birth to two of her three daughters, became a student mentor, and served in a range of VIU Students’ Union and University governance roles.
]Throughout the experience, she learned about so much – including herself. “The most important part of my time at VIU was discovering myself, grounding myself in the knowledge of my past and who I am as a First Nations woman,” says McCarthy, a member of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, located near Gold River on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Before coming to VIU, McCarthy worked as a community health care aid. It was an epiphany at Vancouver’s Dr. Peter Centre, an HIV care facility, that inspired her to return to school.
While at the centre, McCarthy helped look after an Aboriginal client for a couple of months before he passed away. “I was the last touch point of that person’s life, and I felt like I could do more,” she says. “I knew at that point that there was more in me. And I’d always wanted to finish university.”
In 2008, at the age of 31, McCarthy began pursuing that goal. She decided to attend VIU partly because of family connections; her mother, a residential school survivor, studied child and youth care at what was then called Malaspina College. (Today, that legacy carries on – McCarthy’s eldest daughter is taking First Nations Studies at VIU, and plans to graduate next year.)
She enrolled in VIU’s Adult Basic Education (ABE) program to upgrade in English and math – a step that was needed to pursue her Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree. Her ABE studies also fulfilled a requirement on behalf of the Nuu-cha-nulth Tribal Council, which supported McCarthy with educational funding.
“The hardest part of going back to school was sitting with much younger students than myself,” recalls McCarthy.
The math course was tricky, too. But she persevered, obtained her credentials and began the BBA program in 2010. Six years later, McCarthy was on centre stage at Nanaimo’s Port Theatre, accepting her MBA as part of VIU’s convocation ceremonies. Looking on from the audience were proud members of her family, including all of her daughters – two of whom were born while McCarthy attended VIU, in 2009 and 2012.
McCarthy also gained valuable experience serving in a variety of VIU roles outside the classroom. In 2011, she became one of the first Community Cousins at VIU, and served as a mentor for Aboriginal students. She was also a VIU student ambassador and orientation leader, and held numerous positions with the VIU Students’ Union (including Chairperson) and the BC Federation of Students.
During her final years at VIU, McCarthy was elected to VIU’s Board of Governors, and became the first student appointed to the VIU Foundation Board of Directors.
A highlight from this period was VIU’s totem pole project, which involved the raising of three totems – representing the three major First Nations languages on Vancouver Island – at Shq’apthut, VIU’S Aboriginal Gathering Place (the third pole was raised this October). “We had quite a few people come to our celebration. It was really amazing,” says McCarthy, who acted as a project liaison between the Students’ Union and VIU.
It’s fitting that McCarthy was involved in a project involving the Gathering Place, which was a crucial support during her school days. “When I was on life’s edge, it was always there for me,” she says. “You’re able to access the Elders when you need them. I don’t think I would ever have passed school not having them around.”
The Arts One – First Nations Studies program also had a big impact on McCarthy, as it inspired her to research seven generations of her family. “For me, knowing who I was and the values that I have really changed the way that I look at life now,” she adds. “It’s been really great. I’ve changed who I am because of this University.”
In addition, McCarthy highlights Dr. Ralph Nilson – VIU’s President and Vice-Chancellor – as an inspiring figure during her University days. “One of the biggest things for me was the role that the president played in making connections to the community, and to the First Nations community,” she says. “He made himself present, and he was always very helpful. He’s been a really good leader for this school.”
President Nilson, in turn, lauds the role that McCarthy played during her time on campus. “VIU is a better place because of the student leadership and engagement Sherry has provided. It was a pleasure and an honour to work alongside her, and I’m very proud of her many achievements,” he says. “Her journey is a testament to her passion and dedication to her studies, engaging her fellow students and colleagues, her faculty, her University and her First Nations heritage.”
Today, when McCarthy looks back on her eight years at VIU, she is still surprised at her many achievements. “I never believed that I would get this far,” she says. But she has – and now she’s ready to take her skills and make a difference in the working world.
“I want to bridge the Aboriginal communities with the non-Aboriginal communities. That’s what I see my role as,” says McCarthy. “My education has helped prepare me for this.”