Mother's devotion builds a bridge for future generations

Medical Laboratory Science grad Ursal Williams aims to restore family's fading cultural ties through postsecondary education.

Kirsten Bauer - 07 June 2017

In September 2014, Ursal Williams came to the University of Alberta from the Tsilhqot'in First Nation in Williams Lake, B.C. to pursue her dream career in the health sciences. Enrolled in the medical laboratory science (MLS) program, she arrived in Edmonton with a new baby, no place to live, no child care, and no social network for support.

"After I finally got my student loan, we had to find a place to live," Williams recalled. "We applied for U of A housing but we were too far down the list. We looked for a place to rent, but we couldn't find anything. I thought 'If I have nowhere to stay, I can't go to school.' We were staying in a hotel, and my baby was only one year old. It was painful."

A phone call home helped turn things around.

"My mom told me to reach out and ask for help. I thought about it and remembered Aboriginal Student Services. I sent them an email and I told them about my situation and everything after that happened so fast. They invited me for an interview and they sent me an application for family housing. We took the place without even stepping a foot inside it."

Child care was the next hurdle. "They had an orientation on the first day but I had to miss half of the day because I was still looking for daycare. I was the only student in the medical laboratory science program who was a mother at the time."

Once child care needs were met, Williams says she could get on with tackling being a new student and new parent simultaneously. After long days of intense learning in the MLS program, her evenings were spent caring for her son. Once her baby was sleeping, late nights were spent studying and completing assignments.

Three years later, Ursal's drive to succeed has seen her through to convocation. Lisa Purdy, program director of the Medical Laboratory Science program, says she had no idea what kind of challenges Williams faced back then to get settled in Edmonton.

"We've got a student here who literally moved her whole family hours away to attend a postsecondary institution, and that is really quite remarkable. But Ursal has never once pulled the 'mom card'. She's just one of those quiet kids with good grades. She has met every single expectation we've ever set out for her in the program," said Purdy. "In the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission we're seeing the numbers on Indigenous representation in health care and it's ridiculously inadequate. We have an alumni mentoring program, and I'm hoping that Ursal will sign up and choose to share her strengths with students on a similar path in another year or so."

Unstoppable determination

Ursal always knew she wanted to pursue a science career. She made sure to complete all of her science courses in high school but she says sometimes the logistics of getting to class in Williams Lake presented barriers.

"None of my friends were in my classes," she recalled. "I remember one class where I took chemistry and physics from the same teacher, and there were maybe six of us, and I was the only girl. Sometimes that was lonely. At one point, I couldn't schedule math at my school because I had to take other stuff, so I had to drive to another school for math. I was always late," she laughed.

Ursal's perseverance in high school earned her financial sponsorship to pursue her Bachelor of Science at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. After completing her undergraduate degree, Ursal heard about the U of A's Medical Laboratory Science while she volunteered at a health sciences camp for high school students.

Looking to the future while holding on to her roots

After University of Alberta convocation, Williams says she will weigh her options again, but the first priority is a visit home.

"We're aching to get back. We miss home, we miss our family. We've only seen our family a few times since we came here. It's a long drive, around 12 hours. So we don't go back very often."

Her partner of 12 years is currently studying at NAIT, so they will stay in Edmonton until he is finished. Williams says they are building a future for their family together. "For us, it's important that we finish because we want our son to finish postsecondary. As soon as he was born, we started saving for his education."

Speaking their language was not an option for Williams' parents, who grew up in the time of Canada's Residential School System. Williams wants her children to grow up with a strong cultural identity, to attend schools where their language is taught in classrooms and learn from those in their family who still speak it.

"We have some words, but I don't know the language quite yet," she said. "My spouse's parents are fluent, so I'm looking forward to going back home so that my son can it learn it from them."

Ursal has two younger sisters and she wants to be a role model for them and other youth in her community.

"I know a lot of high school students have dreams and I think it's important that they follow through and just keep going. And if you keep going, you can do whatever you want. Even if you're older...just keep going."