Laurie Russell successfully completed Memorial’s one-of-a-kind Inuit bachelor of social work (IBSW) degree program in 2013.
Now, the resident of Happy Valley-Goose Bay can add a master of social work parchment to her wall, as well.
The IBSW program had an equal focus on the standardized social work program and on traditional Inuit knowledge and culture.
The ultimate goal was for graduates to return to Nunatsiavut to work with fellow Inuit.
Following a field instruction opportunity that allowed her to reflect on the importance of developing further in social work leadership, specifically for Indigenous social workers working in Indigenous communities, and after working in Labrador for a while, Ms. Russell was motivated to undertake the master of social work degree program.
Unfortunately, during the second of six semesters of her master’s program, Ms. Russell’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Between working full time and supporting her mother, she was unsure whether she’d be able to continue her education.
But she had great support from some of her instructors and, most importantly, her mom made her promise that she would.
“Having the support and encouragement from my mom to keep going really became the driving force for me to continue on,” she said.
Undergraduate vs. graduate
“I found the IBSW program offered lots of occasions to share personal, work and cultural experiences, since our cohort was made up of all Inuit beneficiaries. As students, we lead those conversations, with lots of opportunity provided by our instructors,” she said about the jump from the undergraduate program to the master’s level.
A huge difference with the master’s program was that Ms. Russell was one of the few Indigenous-identifying students in the program.
“There were times where I felt silent, misunderstood and sometimes invisible.”
When speaking to issues and sharing her perspectives with her classmates, she says she often wondered if it was safe to do so, or whether those speaking to Indigenous issues were speaking from an Indigenous perspective.
“I found it to be a balancing act for sharing with others who were coming from a Western perspective and a mainstream practice,” she said.
Ms. Russell says the positive aspects of her program were the supports and people available at the School of Social Work and the courses for personal and professional reflection, in particular.
Without her IBSW cohort, however, she found the master’s program challenging.
“There were times where I felt silent, misunderstood and sometimes invisible,” she said.
“I was able to draw on some of my course concepts to understand where these feelings were coming from with regards to my social location and how to navigate this through personal reflection and awareness. There were definitely learning opportunities that changed my perspective on things and impacted my practice.”
Some courses did provide an opportunity to discuss and reflect on Indigenous issues, though.
“The online portion was the toughest, but in-person institutes really fostered a sense of cohesion and safety.”
Following the first year of her program, Ms. Russell applied for and accepted a mental health and addictions manager role with the Nunatsiavut Government.
In the final months of completing her degree, she was offered the acting director for mental wellness and healing role.
Ms. Russell had the opportunity to use Nunatsiavut’s Regional Health Plan as a guide to her work at the graduate level while in the position. Harm reduction was her major focus.
After much research, she determined that a focus on reducing the harms of historical and current impacts of colonization in relation to problematic substance abuse in Indigenous populations must be at the forefront.
She is currently overseeing a new harm reduction project using this lens.
“With my mom’s support and the support of my fiancé, who always believed in me, as well as that of other family and professors, I was able to keep motivated and determined to complete the master of social work program. I have a strong feeling of being grounded in a sense of purpose in giving back and contributing to meaningful work within Nunatsiavut.”