Innovative on-reserve education program gives 37-year-old mom second chance

Today Heather Holland is one step closer to realizing her dream of becoming a social worker — a goal more than 20 years in the making, thanks to an innovative on-reserve program in northwestern British Columbia that’s giving adult students a second chance at education.

'It's never too late to return to school,' says Heather Holland, from a Wet'suwet'en community in B.C.

Heather Holland, 37-year-old mother of five, graduates innovative program.

Today Heather Holland takes one step closer to realizing her dream of becoming a social worker — a goal more than 20 years in the making — thanks to an innovative on-reserve program in northwestern British Columbia that's giving adult students a second chance at education.

Holland and 11 of her classmates from the Wet'suwet'en community of Moricetown, B.C., are graduating from the University and College Education Program (UCEP), a bridge between high school and post-secondary that blends academics, culture and the life skills needed to succeed at college or university.

"I didn't have to travel very far. I just went down the road and I'm right in school. So to have a good program like this in our community, it's really important," said Holland, a 37-year-old mother of five.

Diane Mattson is UCEP's program administrator. She says the on-reserve program was created two years ago in response to more than half of the Moricetown Band's members failing their first semester.

"When we researched why, we found they weren't ready. Part of it was the academic skills that they didn't have; the second part was the life skills, the confidence in themselves, moving from a reserve to a larger centre," she said.

The program graduated 13 students in 2015, three of whom are now at the top of their class in an electrical program, and two in a health care program. Of the 12 students graduating in Moricetown this year, eight have already been accepted into post-secondary.

'Never too late'

Holland dropped out of high school when she was 13, the same year she was removed from her parents and placed in a foster group home.

She said poor choices, addiction and unresolved trauma from abuse got in the way of her returning to school as a teen but experiencing the child welfare system firsthand eventually inspired her to pursue social work.

"I think by bringing my experience and my life story to this position, it'll give me the ability to help others get through their struggles and to support families and youth, especially within our community," she said.

Now Holland has been accepted into both the College of New Caledonia and the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and will choose where she would like to pursue a Bachelors of Social Work.

"I did have a few doubts returning at my age. But after I started, I felt confident I could do this and I was determined to graduate," she said.

"It's never too late to return to school."

'Their whole world has expanded'

"It's been an incredible journey for [Holland], said Mattson. "She came in a very long-faced, sad person. And now she's the most bubbly, happy, anything-can-happen, positive person. That total shift in personality is what we see in a lot of students.

UCEP Class of 2016, Moricetown, BC. (Courtesy of Heather Holland)

Mattson says the program is tailored to the individual needs of each student and a partnership with Northwest Community College allows them to take two post-secondary courses as they finish their high school diploma.

"They had the support of home, family and their friends. The classes are small and taught in a way that makes sense to them," she said.

Moricetown is also able to offer a living allowance as an incentive for students to apply, utilizing some of their federal post-secondary funding, in addition to support from B.C.'s Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation. 

"We just put all the little pieces in place. They couldn't get lost because they were wrapped around the whole education community and social community," said Mattson.

The community is noticing, too. Mattson says the number of post-secondary applications from Moricetown Band members has doubled from 30 to 60 since the inception of UCEP.

"Their whole world has expanded. It's wonderful; it's big and it's exciting. Other people see that and want that."

"I'm amazingly proud. It's phenomenal to see the growth that they've had and the powerful influence that they have. They're proud of their heritage and who they are as Wet'suwet'en people, but they also know they can live in another world and any dream is possible for them," said Mattson.

A special graduation feast is being held in Moricetown today, where Holland will take the stage with her daughter, who graduates from elementary school and her son, who is graduating from preschool.

"I want to better myself. I want to be successful in a career that I have a passion for and that would make my family proud, make my children proud and make our community proud and to give back to our community in a time that it's truly needed."

About the Author

Trevor Jang

Trevor Jang is a recipient of the 2016 CJF Aboriginal Journalism Fellowship. He is an award-winning writer and broadcast journalist based in Vancouver, BC. Trevor is from northwestern British Columbia and is a mix of Wet'suwet'en Nation and Chinese descent.