The Hub Grad aims to increase mental health and addictions awareness

Grad aims to increase mental health and addictions awareness

Debra Dell awarded the 2022 Governor General’s Gold Medal 

Athabasca University’s top graduate student didn’t always love school.  

At the start of Debra Dell’s (Doctor of Education in Distance Education ’22) post-secondary journey, it was a means to an endto get a job. And that is precisely what she did. After graduating high school, she went to university, obtained a human services degree in addictions and mental health, and got her first professional job. 

While the school experience wasn’t particularly memorable, Dell did find meaning and purpose when she started working in various substance misuse residential facilities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan as a youth addictions counsellor.

“The youth and families that benefit from the programs I work with are some of the most inspiring teachers,” said Dell. “They have lives that have been so full of trauma and challenges, yet they are models of resilience and perseverance.” 

“The youth and families that benefit from the programs I work with are some of the most inspiring teachers. They have lives that have been so full of trauma and challenges, yet they are models of resilience and perseverance.”

– Debra Dell (Doctor of Education in Distance Education ’22)

Dell’s passion, dedication, and knowledge were so evident to those around her that she had many requests for training and teaching various addictions mental health-related subjects to addictions counsellors and practitioners. And thus, the second half of Dell’s educational journey began.  

“[My] doctoral journey has helped me get to a place with research that made me comfortable and confident enough to propose and tackle the biggest and potentially most personal and impactful project of my career,” said Dell, the 2022 Governor General’s Gold Medal winner.

“[My] doctoral journey has helped me get to a place with research that made me comfortable and confident enough to propose and tackle the biggest and potentially most personal and impactful project of my career,”

The award is given to the AU graduate student with the highest grade-point average in their graduating class. 

Back to school

Dell decided if she was going to start teaching, she would take a more holistic approach and deepen her understanding of educating others on mental health awareness. So, she went back to school and completed two master’s degrees in counselling psychology and education.  

By the time Dell finished both programs, she developed a “real love for the pedagogy of online learning.” She decided to keep going and enroll in AU’s Doctor of Education in Distance Education program. 

“I really believe that you learn a lot more when you’re in discussion with other [online] learners rather
than in a more traditional, classroom-type, transmission-based setting that you get in undergraduate or in high school,” she said. 

“I really believe that you learn a lot more when you’re in discussion with other [online] learners rather than in a more traditional, classroom-type, transmission-based setting that you get in undergraduate or in high school.”

Choosing AU 

As a single, working mother, it was impossible for Dell to stop working to go to school for her doctorate, however the decision to attend AU went beyond access and flexibility. AU’s reputation for delivering quality courses and programs to students played a big part in her decision. Some of the scholars at AU were the same ones that she had been reading about and studying during her master’s programs.  

“I wanted the opportunity to learn alongside some of the people whose works I had been reading and I was able to do this at AU,” she said

“I wanted the opportunity to learn alongside some of the people whose works I had been reading and I was able to do this at AU.”

A challenging journey 

The journey to Convocation 2022 was not without obstacles. She balanced work, school, home, and family as she dealt with the loss of 3 family members while also taking care of her father, who had Alzheimer’s disease.  

Dell was fortunate to have had a strong support group. “The committee of people I work with across the country have always been some of my biggest cheerleaders. We are so much closer than just colleagues and constantly help each other strive for personal goals and continued education,” she said. 

Her biggest supporter, however, was her son, Keenan. He not only helped take care of some of the day-to-day responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and making space for Dell’s studies, but also served as a reminder for why she was pursuing a doctorate―to provide a better life for her family. Education was not an important part of Dell’s upbringing. In fact, she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

Debra Dell with son Keenan

But the journey wasn’t all trials and tribulations. Being an expert in mental health, Dell understood the importance of making time to do the things that she enjoyed such as cycling and travelling. One of her fondest memories was when she traveled to Ireland with a group of students from her cohort and inter-cohort. It was there that she got to meet one of her doctoral committee members.  

“I love distance learning and don’t need to see people’s faces in order to hear their hearts but being able to spend some time with people in person that I had been learning with for many years was wonderful!” 

Next steps 

Now that she has completed her doctorate, Dell plans to further her work as a leader and educator in addictions counselling. She works as the executive director for the Youth Substance Addiction Committee, a national organization funded by Health Canada. In this role, she oversees 13 residential treatment centres across the country along with research projects, information dissemination, policy review and implementation. 

Dell would like to merge her work and school experiences by introducing some of the concepts behind her mental health and addictions program and holistic health together into the education curriculum.  

“The first step will be to realize that all emotions—even the negative ones—are important to learning and growing as individuals,” she said

 

Learn more about Convocation 2022.

Published:
  • June 16, 2022