If Marni Panas of Edmonton had a looking glass four years out to the future, little would she know how poised, peaceful and proud she’d be on June 11, 2015.
That’s the day Panas, 43, graduated from Athabasca University with her Bachelor’s degree in Health Administration.
Now she will feel that much more confident in her job as consultant, engagement and patient experience with Alberta Health Services. She’s been there three-and-a-half years.
Working a busy pace while finishing her education was worth it, she says, as she could apply much of her coursework directly to the job.
In 2011, Panas enacted a 180 degree life switch—or a “do-over” as she calls it. For starters, she left a 15-year job working as a senior consultant for a software company.
While on holiday in the middle of the Australian Outback, her family in tow, Panas came to her aha moment.
“I knew I needed to make a change; I needed something to fill the intrinsic need I had to care for my community, to care for other children, to care for other people who were marginalized,” she says.
Panas understands being marginalized. It was only last spring she went through the ultimate transformation—completing her gender transition.
“I was assigned male at birth but I’ve always been a girl,” says Panas.
That’s one goal she can tick off. But it’s her convocation, she asserts, that marks “the last big milestone in my life do-over.”
“My being transgender is one chapter in a very big book of my life,” she explains.
“My degree and finishing that at Athabasca University was the last big step. I always had regret of never having had a university degree. It’s never too late to be the person you could have been.”
That adage, she says, applies to “so many people struggling to find who they are in the world.”
It was at AU Panas found she was many things. Aside from juggler extraordinaire, it affirmed the role-model parent she could be for her son Alex, 8, on the importance of lifelong learning.
“He’s in grade two and when he sees me study then he studies, [too]! It’s good modelling. I’d say, ‘okay, you do your math homework and I’m going to study at the same time. Then we’ll play.’
That really got him. I was really proud of that. He got to develop those skills just by watching what his parents do.”
As a full-time parent, health worker and student, Panas says the juggling act wouldn’t have been as doable had it not been for AU’s flexibility factor.
She’d heard of the school from her wife who knew people who’d excelled in programs here.
“That was a really big component,” says Panas.
“In hindsight, it really was a perfect period; I can still work full-time, I can [go to school] full-time, do all the things I needed to do and get a degree.”
Panas credits the support from both faculty and her peers at AU for helping pave the way.
Dr. Joy Fraser, professor and director, Health Administration Centre for Social Sciences, was instrumental in that support. There was a point last year where Panas panicked. She thought she might not finish on time because her plate was so full.
Fraser reassured her. As she does with many of her students needing that extra push.
Says Panas: “She knew about my journey and how important it was for me to convocate this year. She just said, ‘you can do this.’
And I did. I used those words to just keep driving me forward. She really lit that fire under me. That was her biggest role—keeping me focused and dedicated and [providing] the encouragement and empowerment to complete this huge life goal.”
Panas adds that professorial support is what “you would hope from a university.”
That and the fact she notes AU processed her name-change in an impressively speedy fashion.
“It’s a sign of where we are in our society and where Athabasca is in its support of the diversity of the student population,” says Panas.
For her part, Dr. Fraser says that’s just how she is with any of her students facing any number of challenges that seek her guidance.
“In Marni’s case, when speaking with her on the phone, I could tell that she was determined and committed to completing her degree,” says Fraser.
“There was never any question in my mind that she would reach her goal and have her dream come true. I certainly tried to support and encourage her, but it was Marni who did the hard work.
She has every reason to be proud of her accomplishments, not only educationally, but in her career and personal life as well. I am especially proud that she is one of our Health Administration degree graduates.”
Panas says her time at AU also allowed her to develop sharper speaking and critical thinking skills which have come in handy when doing her frequent media appearances.
Leading up to and following the recent Alberta provincial election, she acted as political pundit on Edmonton’s CTV Morning Live news program alongside a panel of other local community leaders.
“It had nothing to do with being transgender,” Panas asserts.
“It was just an opinion of an informed Albertan. My education behind me provided me the ability to say ‘this is what I think, and this is why.’ So it’s not only helped my career but it’s helped all other places of my life. The way I think and the way I see the world has shifted in these four years.”
Last week, when Panas received her degree parchment in the mail, she was in silent awe.
“I looked at it and it had my name on it. It was a big deal on so many levels. It’s not just about a degree and my education—it’s signifying where I’ve come in my life.
You realize that it’s important to live each day without regret—with complete appreciation for what the day has to offer you.”