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Born with FASD, N.W.T. woman overcomes challenges to graduate top of class

Overcoming adversity has become second nature for Fort Smith, N.W.T.'s Jennifer Tourangeau. Despite that, she's still taking time to celebrate her accomplishments after being named valedictorian of her college class in Grande Prairie.

Jennifer Tourangeau plans to get bachelor's degree in fine arts before working toward art therapy certificate

Jennifer Tourangeau poses in her graduation attire. Tourangeau was named valedictorian of her class, graduating from Grande Prairie Regional College's Visual Arts and Design diploma program. (submitted by Jennifer Tourangeau)

Overcoming adversity has become second nature for Fort Smith, N.W.T.'s Jennifer Tourangeau. 

Despite that, the 36-year-old is still taking time to celebrate her accomplishments after graduating from Grande Prairie Regional College's Visual Arts and Design program, and being named valedictorian of her class.

"I am glad it's finally over, for one, and am amazed at the amount of accomplishments I have had," said Tourangeau.

Tourangeau was born in the Northwest Territories community of Lutsel K'e, and was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in 1979. She was adopted in 1980, moving to Fort Smith, where she says she was harassed in school, and attempted suicide at the age of 13 after struggling with feelings of abandonment.

"There was nothing available at all," Tourangeau said, regarding supports for her condition. "During my time, there really wasn't much known about the condition.

One of Tourangeau's paintings. She describes her style as abstract. (submitted by Jennifer Tourangeau)
"It was really hard at that age for anybody to understand why their family would give them up. It was a really rough time, and having a disability on top of everything didn't make it easier."

However, Tourangeau overcame her difficult upbringing, pursuing her passion in arts to Grande Prairie, Alta., where she now lives with her partner — the pair is engaged to be married next year. She'll next head to the University of Alberta, where she hopes to work toward a bachelor of fine arts in painting, and then a certificate in art therapy.

Tourangeau said that art can allow others who are suffering through difficult situations express themselves, and hopes to eventually create a scalable program that can be adapted throughout Canada.

"A lot of us aren't comfortable talking to counsellors or psychiatrists," she said. "I totally understand that. I get that."

Tourangeau hopes to use art as part of healing, "to give them another way to express their emotions and whatever they are feeling, and let it out in a non-destructive way."

During her time at Grande Prairie, Tourangeau also created the video Dream Big, designed to encourage aboriginal youth to pursue post-secondary education.

And as for her advice for others chasing their dreams?

"Don't allow anybody to tell you that you can't do it. It's your life that you're living, not theirs. If you want it, make it happen."

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