New Brunswick

First Wolastoqey valedictorian at UNB hopes to inspire others with her story

Kianna Bear-Hetherington has had a lot to overcome, and she shared that journey with her peers as she gave her valedictory address at UNB this week.

Kianna Bear-Hetherington says her university journey has been unconventional

A young woman in a grad gown and cap stands at the podium.
Kianna Bear-Hetherington gave her valedictory address to graduates in the faculties of forestry and environmental management, nursing and science at University of New Brunswick's Fredericton campus on Wednesday. (Submitted by UNB)

Kianna Bear-Hetherington said she never imagined herself a valedictorian, telling her story to a crowd of her peers, when she was growing up. 

The University of New Brunswick's first Wolastoqey valedictorian is also its first Indigenous student to have that honour in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM, earning a bachelor of science in environmental and natural resources, with a major in water resource management.

Bear-Hetherington said that her university journey has been unconventional.

"Growing up as the daughter of an Indian day-school survivor and the granddaughter of a residential-school survivor, I face a lot of deep rooted trauma and pain within my own journey," she told Information Morning Fredericton

"So I wanted to use my story to empower others. No matter how much pain and adversities you may be facing, you can overcome that struggle."

A young woman with dark straight hair and wearing a beige sleeveless top smiles at the camera in front of a sign.
Bear-Hetherington has accepted a position as a fisheries technician with Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick. (Submitted by Kianna Bear-Hetherington)

It was her father who encouraged her to pursue the water resource management program at UNB, and she said it was the hands-on learning environment she had longed for.

"Once I entered university, I really knew this program was for me," said Bear-Hetherington.

The program "has you outdoors in the field at least two to three days a week, rather than just sitting in a classroom all day. So it was very healing for me to go back to my roots."

Bear-Hetherington said that she has had to overcome addiction, which she struggled with at the beginning of university, and has now been sober for two years.

"I was trying to deal with a lot of sadness and pain within myself, you know, I'm not the only one to feel like this," she said.

"As an Indigenous youth, we have a lot of people who feel this intergenerational pain. But I really wanted to use this platform to uplift others to allow them to reclaim themselves."

She said "the struggles we face in this world only shape our purpose."

Graham Forbes, a professor of wildlife ecology, taught Bear-Hetherington in some of her upper-level classes. He said she's invested, gets involved and often makes a course better for everyone.

He also admires her perseverance.

"If she gets knocked back a bit, she gets back up and keeps going," said Forbes. "It's really quite an impressive attitude toward everything — education and life. So for her to get valedictorian at UNB this year was very special, very appropriate."

Bear-Hetherington said she finally found her voice as a university student through support at the university's environmental and natural resources faculty and through leadership roles she adopted. 

She was the Indigenous representative for the student union and she mentored other Indigenous youth across Canada.

A young woman with long dark hair in two braids smiles at the camera in an outdoor setting. She is wearing glasses, a cropped aqua tank top and is holding a small bird in her hands.
Bear-Hetherington said being able to work in the field during her program was very satisfying. (Submitted by Kianna Bear-Hetherington)

She felt the university community was welcoming to her, but she had a lot of internal struggle, including when it came to self-doubt.

One of her mentors, Cecilia Brooks, helped her feel empowered.

"She is the only Indigenous professor within my program and she teaches the only Indigenous-perspectives class within my program as well," said Bear-Hetherington, who worked as a teaching assistant under Brooks for two years.

"She was so incredibly inspiring. And the stories she's told about her life experiences — it really pushed me to be able to tell my own story in my own way as well."

Now she hopes to inspire others who face difficulties, especially those who are interested in science, technology, engineering or math, and she has accepted a position as a fisheries technician with the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick.

"My struggles did help shape me into the woman I am today," said Bear-Hetherington.

"I just want to help inspire others to reclaim their power."


Vanessa Moreau is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick in Moncton. You can send story tips to

With files from Information Morning Fredericton