Indigenous student leader wants to inspire others with her success story

Jennifer Sylvester will pick up her diploma from U of T for Indigenous Studies on June 20. As a teen she was told university wasn't for her, but now she's preparing to start her master's degree in the fall.

Jennifer Sylvester will graduate from U of T on June 20 despite being told she wasn't cut out for university

Jennifer Sylvester was told as a teen that she wasn't cut out for university. Now this single mother is an Indigenous Studies major about to graduate from U of T. (Tina Makenzie/CBC)

When Jennifer Sylvester was preparing to graduate from high school, she says school counsellors told her that university wasn't the best avenue for her, and that she would be better suited for clerical work.

On June 20 the Indigenous Studies major will walk across the stage at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall and is preparing to start her masters degree in the fall. She says she hopes to be an inspiration to others.

"It's important for me to inspire the indigenous women, specifically single mothers because often they feel like they don't have the abilities or they don't have the potential but it's a matter of saying that you can do it."

Sylvester, 41, says she reached heights far greater than she ever imagined at U of T. She was the driving force that helped encourage the campus bookstore to carry Indigenous Studies hooded sweatshirts.

She served as president and communications coordinator for the Indigenous Studies Student Union *!SSU).

Sylvester also had a hand in organizing a massive powwow at the downtown Toronto campus, attracting hundreds of people — an event that helped the ISSU win the Arts & Science Student Union's Course Union of the Year Award.

Jennifer Sylvester (fourth from the left) with the Indigenous Studies Student Union at the powwow held in U of T's Athletic Centre. The student union – only in its second year – won the Arts & Science Student Union's Course Union of the Year Award this year. (University of Toronto/Hannah James)

She says her biggest accomplishment, by far, was achieving all of those things while being a single mother with a full course load. She says she often had to bring her young son, who was five at the time, to lectures and classes with her.

"One of the hardest things was that I had a good job at the time and I was financially stable. Just making that change and that shift, you realize the financial burden of going back to school and being a single parent."

Sylvester was raised in Toronto and went to a Catholic school, though her home community is Beausoleil First Nation, near Georgian Bay. She says as a teen she often felt she had less potential and opportunity than other students.

"As other students were hearing, 'You guys can be doctors or lawyers,' I was being told to get clerical or factory work. I was always wondering why wasn't I being told that I could be a doctor or a lawyer."

For years Sylvester worked in various clerical positions, eventually ending up in the social work field assisting homeless and recently-housed clients. She says the work was rewarding, but that she knew she was destined for greater things in life.

Jennifer Sylvester, a single mom, often had to bring her young son to lectures and classes with her. (Nicole Martin/CBC)

"I just knew that there was something more for me out there in the world."

'Dream big, follow through, and don't give up'

She says her biggest source of encouragement and support was her mother, who continually told her to go back to school if that's what her heart desired. When Sylvester's mother died, she said she could still hear her mom's voice telling her to "just do it."

So she finally did. Sylvester says she discovered a missing piece of herself when she found Indigenous Studies at U of T. She says the faculty and student union were an amazing source of support for her over the years as she juggled single parenthood and full-time school. 

Sylvester says her journey is far from over's just beginning. She'll be starting a master's program in social justice education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education this fall and plans to eventually teach Indigenous Studies.

"There needs to be more Indigenous, experienced voices teaching the content in academic settings. So it's very important for me to become a lecturer or professor in an academic institution."

She says she will continue to get the message out to young, indigenous women that anything is possible.

"Dream big, follow through, and don't give up."