From drop-out to doctor

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

In 1972 I dropped out of school after completing grade eleven and married my best friend and love of my life. “What did your parents think of that?” people ask. I was a good student and had my eye on going to university. But I was also a girl and my parents were fundamentalist Christians who expected Jesus to return to earth before the end of the century. So getting married was not only what they wished for their daughters, they didn’t think there was much use in a worldly education. And besides, getting married was a better fate for their youngest child, than running away to live with an American army deserter like my older sister had done at the same age.

Although I had loosely imagined that I would become a teacher I was like most seventeen year olds in that my plans could be easily diverted—especially when love was in the air. On September 30, Bub, the only name I knew for myself, which had been given to me at birth by my siblings, and Bub, the only name Carl knew for himself, which had been given to him at birth by his siblings, got married and lived happily ever after for 20 something years.

At first people were appalled, even in those days 17 years old was too young to marry. They watched my belly expecting me to be expecting. That was the only legitimate reason for teenagers to get married. To this day most people assume that Adam’s, my oldest birth child, birthday must be only a few months after our anniversary.

I missed my school friends and in June the following year, when they were graduating I wished I had stuck it out so that I could have partied with them. Over the years I have had the same regrets each time I miss a school reunion. Otherwise being a high school drop out didn’t hold me back. Eventually we had three children of our own—Adam, Joni and Heather—and then added a fourth, Joaquim, from Brazil. We read them the Bible everyday and took them to church. We lived in Tsartlip First Nation and Bub and Bub operated two businesses—a gardening and nursery business and Mt. Newton Indian Sweaters.

We had a productive and interesting life and I had no use for a formal education. But living on an Indian reserve raised profound questions for me such as: why do Canadians have such an insidious sort of racism against First Nations people, how can Canada maintain apartheid and yet continue to think it’s the best country in the world, and why do I feel like I’m the only one who is in a panic about this situation?

No one, not my family, not the First Nations elders, and especially not the church gave me satisfying answers. Not only did the church not have the answers I was looking for I began to realize that it didn’t even ask the right questions. I needed time and space and help to think and I decided that I needed more education.

Life is good when you get beautiful flowers from your beautiful granddaughter--thanks Yetsa (The other five grandchildren were at school.)

I was accepted into first year university as an adult student—a highschool drop-out—no upgrading needed. I remember the first day a woman asked me my name, my brain refused to let me say Bub. The name had served me well on the reserve, with my family and even in business—it was quirky but it worked. However, there was something very un-university about it and that day my lips couldn’t spit it out. Instead I said, “Sylvia,” and I began to become Sylvia.

For all sorts of reasons I left the church and, for other reasons of his own, Mr. Bub (that’s how people differentiated between us) left our family. There I was in 1992 living on the reserve with our 4 kids, ostracized by my family, suspect in the eyes of my First Nations family and with only the university to hang on to.

When I graduated with my BA I felt like I had only just gotten started. But I knew I was on the right track—I was not only finding some of the answers I was looking for I was learning how to ask the right questions.

Thanks Dr. John Lutz, my supervisor, who encouraged and supported me.

In 1998 when I graduated with my MA I was satisfied that with enough time and effort I could tell a good story, that I could retell old stories and that I could make a difference.

I was ready to step out—I still had kids to raise, bills to pay and things to do. A few years later I thought I needed a Public Administration degree to enhance the First Nations management work I was doing. After spending about $10,000 I was nearing completion when I realized that all university was not the same. The PA degree was not the kind of education I wanted. The program wasn’t about answering the important questions or researching better administrative practices it was training me to reproduce the same insane bureaucracy that I struggled with everyday. I quit. Not because I could see no value in it like I had done 30 years earlier but because I disagreed with what they were teaching (a little of my fundamentalist background).

In 2009 I had been working in the field of on-reserve housing for about 15 years. I was teaching housing managers. I was analyzing housing policy. I was sitting on provincial and national housing boards looking for solutions to the biggest fiasco in Canadian history. I had profound questions I couldn’t answer. I needed time and space and help to think and I decided I needed more education.

Thanks Tex McLeod, my super person.

More than six years later I am ironing my dress, having a shower, finding my favourite strands of pearls. My kids and partner have their tickets. I’ll be walking across the stage at UVIC with the rarified group of Phds. I’ll shake the hand of the Chancellor and get the official nod for the last time. And you will ask me, “How do I feel?”

I feel like I am a highschool dropout. That sort of identity sticks with you. But I’m not just your run-of-the-mill dropout. I’m a dropout who had questions that were bigger than me. I’m a dropout who went back to school for only one reason—to find answers. I’m a dropout who still has an obsessive brain that won’t stop until it’s satisfied.

I’m a highschool dropout that you can call Doctor.

Where to next for my education? Knitting workshops. Knitting videos. Knitting books.





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  • Congrats auntie (bub) Sylvia.
    a part of your history I did not know, thank you for sharing. Lotsa love to you ❤️

    Clay Qwulshemut on
  • I love this, Sylvia, so intimate and heartfelt. What a wonderful achievement and for all the right reasons. I salute you.

    Tricia Dower on
  • Love reading about your leadership journey. Life opens doors and windows with many paths to walk depending on what we choose. Being a single parent of 2 I can understand what it was like being a single parent of 4 at least to some degree. Your story empowers and shows we can do anything we set our heart and minds on. Deep respect to you for this great accomplishment. Proud to be your friend. I laughed at the boots as I remember clearly from when we worked together your passion for shoes.

    Jude Sayers on
  • Congratulations on finding out how acquire the education you want and need Best wishes and hope we can work tigger her soon

    DaleBbishop on

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