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Wilfrid Laurier University Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing
September 19, 2014
 
 
Canadian Excellence

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Kelly Laurila, Alumna



In the fall of 2009 when Kelly Laurila entered Laurier’s Master of Social Work Aboriginal Field of Study program, her name was Kelly Nixon. Over the next year, much more than her name changed.

Laurila grew up in northern Ontario. She is part Irish and part Sámi. The Sámi – sometimes referred to as Laplanders – are an indigenous people of Finland. And while she settled in southern Ontario in 1980 and was involved with the aboriginal community in Kitchener-Waterloo, she did not really feel “connected” to her heritage. This was largely because she did not know much about her culture.

In an aim to feel connected to her culture, she decided to take a one-year leave of absence from Conestoga College, where she has been a counselor for the past 18 years, to enroll in Laurier’s MSW Aboriginal Field of Study. She also hoped to learn how to incorporate more indigenous teachings into curriculum at the post-secondary level.

While Laurier’s program is designed to inspire students to learn about their background, Laurila notes several life-changing events. This includes a fasting ceremony she says “enabled me to ‘sit’ with me,” as well as courses where she could research her Sámi heritage, and focus on what her identity means to her.

“What I learned this past year in the program was that when you know who you are and where you come from, you stop questioning if you belong, because then, you know you do,” Laurila says. “It is this ‘knowing’ that equips one with all that is needed to handle whatever life brings.”

This ‘knowing’ led her to change her last name from Nixon (her married name) to her traditional name of Laurila, which means song bird.

“The ironic part of all this is that I only learned of the meaning of my original name in the past year,” she says.

Academically, Laurila challenged herself emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually beyond what she would have thought possible, writing more papers than anticipated and pushing her critical thinking skills to a higher level. She was awarded for her efforts with a Gold Medal of Academic Excellence.

“Social work has to do with change, and having an impact on people’s lives,” says Susan Cadell, acting dean of the Faculty of Social Work. “The aboriginal field of study has tremendous ability to inspire, and I think Kelly is an example of the potential both the program and the profession have.”

A beaming Laurila graduated on Oct. 29. She has returned to her post at Conestoga College, and will also teach aboriginal-related courses at Brock University and the University of Waterloo in winter 2011. Within the local aboriginal community, she has initiated discussions about an aboriginal community centre in Waterloo Region.

Laurila continues to gather strength from drumming circles, which she says has “helped to bring her home.”

“I trusted in the Creator to guide my path and I am truly a better person for all of this. I say a “Chi Miigwetch” (a big thank you) for all that has come my way.”