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Fort Smith mother of six receives award for upgrading education

Cayla Gillis earns Canada Post 2022 Award for Indigenous Students
Cayla Gillis, second from the right, is shown with her office administration class from Aurora College. Cayla is graduating in June from both high school and the Aurora College Office Administration program in Fort Smith. Photo courtesy Cayla Gillis

A mother of six from Fort Smith who decided to improve her life by returning to school is a winner of the Canada Post 2022 Award for Indigenous Students.

After 11 years of being a stay-at-home mother and living in Alberta for a period of time, Cayla Gillis said she knew that to secure her future for herself and her children when she moved back to her hometown in 2019, it was time to upgrade her education so she could enter the workforce and make both herself and her children, who range in age from five to 16, proud.

“When I came back to Fort Smith, I didn’t have an education. I was looking at jobs online, and a lot of them needed just a high school diploma and I didn’t even have that, so I knew I needed to go back to school,” Gillis said.

To receive her Grade 12 education, Gillis returned to high school studies for a year to upgrade and then entered the Office Administration program at the Thebacha campus of Aurora College in Fort Smith.

“I am in my second year and in my last semester. I tried really hard this year,” said Gillis, who maintains an average of above 90.

The nationwide annual award, created by Canada Post in 2004, provides monetary support to Indigenous Canadian students who have resumed their education after being away from school for at least 12 months and who have completed at least a full year of study.

For the 2022 award, 25 First Nation, Metis and Inuit students from every province and territory were recognized for their dedication to learning.

To qualify for the award, students had to write an essay that outlined the challenges they faced and the obstacles they had to overcome to resume and continue their education.

For Gillis, she provided insight into her day-to-day circumstances that made returning to school a challenge.

“It was about how I dropped out of high school, my challenges, and my class year,” she said.

“At the end of the year, my auntie was diagnosed with lung cancer and I still had to go to school. I’ve had a lot of challenges with my kids, babysitters, the cost, and I just put that out there and how I still tried,” Gillis said.

“I still push myself even when it is hard. I got nominated for the Student Association president last year, and this is my second year doing it and there is no one else on it this year so it’s just me. And I am the mother of six, so it’s a lot.”

She then applied for and received the $2000 scholarship in recognition of her hard work and determination.

While school studies can be daunting for those already in the education system, to go back to the books after more than a decade away from learning was a major life change, she said.

“Because Covid was happening too, it all went to online so I wasn’t used to that. I didn’t even have a computer so I had to buy a computer - it was a big change,” she said of the extra challenges she faced.

Finish line ahead

Yet, Gillis persevered because her goals were in sight and she knew she had made the right decision because of the enjoyment she gets from the experience.

“I really love to push myself to try and get that better mark, so I love all my classes, my teachers and I can’t say enough good things about my school right now,” she said.

Her kids, too, think it’s “pretty cool” for their Mom to have gone back to school.

“I have a lot of really proud people and a lot of good people just helping me get through the school year and I’ve had so much amazing support from everybody.”

She said the support she received from her teachers, too, has been “over the top” and that they were all extremely supportive in helping her achieve her goals.

And looking ahead, her future career goals and work experience are already materializing, having completed a work practicum and several short-term work opportunities during the summer and at Christmas at the local health centre as she has been offered a term position for a year.

Overall, with her graduation from both high school and Aurora College in June on the horizon, Gillis said the experience has been one that was worthwhile, despite the challenges she encountered along the way.

“I didn’t know what I was capable of. Being a stay-at-home mom for that long - that was my job. Even with the kids, I was still a Grande Prairie Volunteer of the Year award winner in 2018 and I always try to help wherever I can.”