Indigenous

Cree U of Winnipeg graduate speaks her language in valedictory address

Sharissa Neault was a 2022 spring convocation valedictorian at the University of Winnipeg. With an honours degree in psychology, she hopes to stay connected to her Cree language and culture as she continues on.

'I wanted all the little Ininew children in the crowd to hear me,' says Sharissa Neault

A woman stands in a forest.
Sharissa Neault says she had a really great support system of family, friends and teachers. (Submitted by Sharissa Neault)

Sharissa Neault was in disbelief when she heard she had been chosen as one of the University of Winnipeg's valedictorians for the 2022 spring convocation.

"When I got the call, I didn't believe it," she said.

"I was like, 'You're joking?' It was kind of unreal, I guess. I don't know how else to describe it. It was, like, all of that work was for something."

Neault, a member of Fox Lake Cree Nation, graduated in June with an bachelor's degree in psychology.

She says it was important to her to speak her language during her speech at the graduation.

"I wanted all the little Ininew [Cree] children in the crowd to hear me speak my language, even any Indigenous child," she said.

"The whole entire beginning was just a story about my grandfather — that was really important to bring into the speech as well. I tied it into the university experience. That's how the Ininew share knowledge,  through stories." 

She says her degree belongs to her whole family, because she couldn't have achieved it without their support. 

She was nominated for valedictorian by two of her teachers.

Neault gives her valedictorian speech to arts students at the spring convocation on June 9. (Submitted by Sharissa Neault)

Psychology professor Lisa Sinclair says she learned a lot from Neault.

"When she has something to say, you stop and listen because it's always kind of on point and great," she said.

"These are science-based courses, but then she could bring in some Indigenous perspective. She wasn't afraid to speak up, to speak about her experiences … which was great because we were all able to learn from her."

Melanie Martin, a physics professor who was leading the university's chapter of the Canadian Indigenous Science and Engineering Society while Neault was president, says she showed perseverance.

"She stuck with it," she said. "There were lots of times where she could have just given up and thrown in the hat, and she kept going."

A message in books

Neault says she initially wanted to study social work, but an experience in the library changed her direction.

"I just sat on the floor because there was nowhere to study," she said.

"And I looked around, and every single book around me said 'psychology.' I had sat in the psychology section, and that was the reason I chose psychology. That's kind of the way I live through life, just trusting and hoping I'm on the right path."

As for her future, Neault is hoping to continue her studies and receive a PhD in psychology.

Martin says she looks forward to seeing Neault return six or seven years from now as a faculty member.

Neault has some research opportunities in the fall. She says her experience so far has shown her that she can achieve a lot, even when she felt like the odd one out.

"Being an Indigenous student in academia, you never really feel like you belong, especially in psychology. There's no Indigenous professors in the faculty, and not very many Indigenous students," she said.

"It was kind of lonely. I felt like I was just floating by — like not really doing enough, not making enough connections. But to get that call – no, it was enough, you did a good job."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.

with files from Stefan Richard

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