Lila Bruyere doesn't need to remind her son, Shawn Johnston, that it's Mother's Day on Sunday. She sees him every day at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., where they're enrolled in the same master's program.

"It was weird at first," says Johnston, but not any longer.

"We learned to be very professional with each other," Bruyere says. "We don't get into each other's hair ... but, if we need to talk or work stuff out, we do it."

Johnston was 16 when he dropped out of school. He says he was a good student, but his self-esteem was so low that he felt he didn't deserve an education.

Lila Bruyere

Lila Bruyere went to a residential school until she was 14 years old. At the age of 40, she earned her bachelor's degree in social work and in October will receive a master's degree. (Courtesy of Shawn Johnston)

By 17, he was living on his own in Winnipeg, about 400 kilometres from his home community of Couchiching First Nation in northern Ontario.

Johnston, who is now 37, says living in a big city without family or childhood friends was a shock. He managed to get an apartment and a good job, but says he also got into marijuana and alcohol.

Sometimes he thought about going back to school. He dreamed about passing his GEDs – four tests that would stand in for his missing high school diploma – but self-doubt held him back.

Then, on a rare trip home in 1998, Johnston saw his mother walk across a community stage to receive her bachelor's degree in social work.

"She found the courage to go back to school and make a life for herself," Johnston recalls. "Knowing that she could do it at the age of 40, I thought, 'Why can't I do that?'"

Mother a residential school survivor

Getting a bachelor's degree was no small feat for Bruyere, who is now 61. 

A survivor of Canada's residential school system, Bruyere learned at an early age to fear education. She was harshly punished for failing to live up to the expectations of her instructors and began to believe she was incapable of learning.

After struggling through high school and an unsuccessful stint in college, Bruyere was ready to give up on education. Then, when she was in her late thirties, a friend encouraged her to study social work through a distance education program at Ottawa's Carleton University.

"I had to work doubly hard at it," Bruyere says. "Because of being a survivor, I had these messages in my head that I couldn't do this."

Four years later, Johnston was attending his mother's graduation at Carleton University's off-site campus located in the Nanicost building in Couchiching First Nation. 

Son hits bottom before hitting books

Inspired, Johnston returned to Winnipeg determined to follow in his mother's footsteps.

He started to study for his GEDs, but gave up after only a month.

"I just found it challenging when I was trying to do it on my own," he said.

Discouraged, Johnston began using highly addictive drugs like cocaine and crystal meth.

In a single week, Johnston says he lost his job, his apartment and all of his savings. With nothing left to lose, he found a phone and called his mother.

"I said, 'I'm done. I want to come home. I need to start over again.'"

Mom and son now classmates

Over the course of seven years, Johnston slowly put his life back together. He went to rehab, passed his GEDs, and graduated from Lambton College in Sarnia, Ont., with a diploma in social work. In 2013, he received his own bachelor's degree from the University of Western Ontario in London.

Last September, Johnston and Bruyere enrolled in the same master of social work program at Wilfrid Laurier University.

"It isn't something that we planned," Bruyere says, but she's "tickled pink" to be her son's classmate.

"We've become really good friends over the years," Johnston says.

"We know when to be students and when to be family," his mother adds.

Johnston and Bruyere are finishing their courses on June 9 and will graduate together in October. Johnston says he plans to stay in Kitchener-Waterloo for another year to work, while his mother would like to work with residential school survivors.