MacWatt proves it’s never too late for learning

"I was the first student to sign up. I want to teach. It’s my life mission. So many people have encouraged me. Now I want to help others."


Several years ago, MaryDawn MacWatt’s life took a 180 degree turn. From being a financially dependent wife, MacWatt became the sole provider for herself and her three children. While in transition, MacWatt knew that independence was the only way out.

In a chance meeting with Vancouver Island University professor Dr. Ian Whitehouse at her father’s nursery in the Cowichan Valley, MacWatt mustered up the courage to accept his invitation to sit in on a university English class.

The course, which focused on stories about "warriors of light", changed her life.

From feeling like a victim of circumstances, Mac-Watt switched her thinking, taking charge of how she perceived and responded to situations in her life.

Today, MacWatt is one course away from earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in First Nations Studies at VIU. She’s also just completed the first term of VIU’s Education degree program now offered at the Cowichan campus.

"I was the first student to sign up," she said. "I want to teach. It’s my life mission. So many people have encouraged me. Now I want to help others."

Originally from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, MacWatt is an Inuvialuit who has lived in Cowichan Valley for 16 years. As a residential school survivor, she has overcome many obstacles and is determined to be a part of solutions and positive change.

For MacWatt, education is the key.

"When I first started taking classes, it was really hard," she says. "I was raising three children on my own. It was a tough financially and I thought I couldn’t do it."

Mentors like Penelakut Elder Florence James helped her through the dark days when she doubted her own abilities.

"Florence sat me down and explained her own journey," said MacWatt. "She gave me hope that I could succeed."

MacWatt’s perseverance paid off. She made the Dean’s list three years in a row, obtained employment as a work-op student at VIU’s Cowichan campus and last year received a Cowichan Citizenship Award in recognition for her contribution to the educational community.

"MaryDawn is an amazing student," said Whitehouse. "Not only has she excelled at her studies, she’s participated in so many worthwhile projects for social change. She is a key contributor to the Language Revitalization Project, by helping to digitally record the oral stories of her own people and those of other First Nations Elders. She is also a work-op student on the Textual Encoding Initiative through the Innovation lab at the Cowichan campus. It involves encoding the Douglas Treaties and making them more accurate and available to students."

MacWatt points to the ongoing support and encouragement from VIU faculty mentors, including James, Whitehouse, English professor Dr. Sally Carpentier, Anthropology teacher Dr. Helene Demers and Psychology teacher Dr. Chuck Lemery, as the key factors for her success.

"Their first year courses really helped ground me," said MacWatt. "It was hard to be away from home and my children, but the way the courses are taught is really beautiful. The faculty gave me hope and the Cowichan campus is a welcoming, supportive environment."

MacWatt is still surprised about the new, exciting

opportunities that keep appearing in her life. In May 2014, she was selected with five other students to participate in a three-week spring field school to New Mexico led by VIU First Nations professor Dan McDonald. The group visited 13 Aboriginal communities and learned about tourism and its connection to economic development.

MacWatt hopes that her children, now 18, 20 and 22, see her as a positive role model.

"All of them are wonderful kids," she said. "They see that education has changed my life. I hope they’ve learned that anything is possible and to never give up hope."

Going forward, MacWatt wants to inspire others pursuing their education.

"I enjoy helping fellow students with homework, child minding, or whatever they need," she said. "My door is always open."

Editor’s note: VIU’s Bachelor of Education program offered at Nanaimo and Cowichan campuses is accepting applications for September 2015. For information, contact Faculty Advisor David Sufrin at 250-740-6223 or email