“You can, you know.”
Hearing those four simple words from a Grade 7 teacher marked the moment Debra Dell, the Athabasca University (AU) 2020 Future Alumni Award winner, truly believed she could go to university and become a psychologist.
Not only did she successfully complete a bachelor of arts in psychology after she graduated high school, she went on to earn two online master’s degrees and will soon complete the requirements for AU’s Doctor of Education in Distance Education.
This accomplishment will just be the most recent in a long list of accomplishments—on top of completing her other degrees Dell has had a successful career in Indigenous Health Leadership, primarily in addictions and mental health.
Early educational experiences
Dell said her early education experiences were not altogether positive, as her childhood included a lot of trauma; her family did not necessarily value education and many of the people in her family didn’t even complete high school.
She recalls being around 10 years old and seeing a commercial on television about how addiction is a disease and psychologists can help, and she decided then that she wanted to pursue that career path to help her family. At 13, with some encouragement from her teacher, she truly believed she could do it and started to work full time to save for school.
But when she got to university, she found it wasn’t what she had expected. Rather than having smaller group discussions and exchanging ideas, she found herself in a crowded lecture hall with professor simply transmitting knowledge to the audience.
“I found that the transmission-based teaching in large lecture halls just wasn’t for me,” Dell said. “Quickly I realized that even though I was in a face-to-face school, I didn’t have to attend. I just had to write the tests and papers, and no one noticed.”
She often jokes that she was a distance learner before it was “a thing,” even as a student at bricks-and-mortar schools.
Inspired to further education
Dell left university with a psychology degree, but not an appreciation for the value of education. She quickly found work in addictions and mental health, and it was there she discovered a community of people who shared her values and really cared about the practice application of making a difference.
Through this work she began to think about going back to school, and completed an online master of counselling psychology at Yorkville University. Since she was regularly taking on teaching roles at work, and being asked to teach more, she decided to take another online degree—this time a master of education at Yorkville University.
“In all my online degrees, I have felt the idea of one person knowing everything is set aside in favour of the value of the community voice,” Dell said. “That’s when I started to appreciate what education could do for the world. Not just for me, but for the world.”
During her time doing online education, she had always heard of AU. After finishing her master’s degree she wanted to keep learning, and when she discovered AU’s Doctor of Education in Distance Education, she immediately felt it would be a good fit.
“I have first-hand experience of how community learning has transformed lives, and not to be cliché about AU’s strategic direction, but I have lived that experience and therefore it’s easy to believe in it,” she said. “Since I found AU there has just been more of that, and that’s why it’s really powerful.”
“I advocated for over 10 years that the treatment centres should have schools in them, and we do now, so that kids who are struggling and already marginalized can find that belonging in school”– Debra Dell
Making a difference
Dell said she hopes her degree will help her work to continue providing educational opportunities for the addictions counsellors and youth she works with in residential treatment centres.
“I advocated for over 10 years that the treatment centres should have schools in them, and we do now, so that kids who are struggling and already marginalized can find that belonging in school,” she said.
Dell added that she has heard from many of these youth over the years who have tracked her down to thank her for helping open those doors for them, “but I prefer to think it’s the program that helped them, not that I have helped them.”
Regardless, she said she is eager to continue her work supporting marginalized youth by showing them the transformative power education can have in their lives—coming full circle on those four words that made such a difference in her own life.
“Over the years I’ve looked for that one Grade 7 teacher, Marj Hignett, who said to me, ‘You can, you know.’ They’re such a simple few words, but up until that moment I never believed someone in my situation could,” she said.
Learn more about the Alumni Awards and watch short videos about the 2020 winners on the Alumni Awards webpage.