Mother-daughter duo graduate university together—for a second time
Juanita and Natashia Marshall complete Master of Counselling program despite learning disabilities
It’s not every day that members of the same family pursue a university degree in the same program at the same time. But to do it twice is exceptionally rare—especially when factoring in learning disabilities that can make university seem like a daunting challenge.
But that’s what the Marshall family did. In 2020, Sarah Jane graduated from Athabasca University’s (AU) Master of Counselling program and on June 17, 2022, Juanita and Natashia will join her with their degrees in hand. Though family convocations are rare, in fact this is the Marshalls’ second time graduating together. The trio also graduated from the University of Calgary in 2015.
While they all started their program together, Juanita and Natashia needed more time to complete the program due to learning disabilities and other health challenges. They would both find the support they needed at AU.
“It’s a huge barrier to education, and it’s so demoralizing,” Juanita said of her issues with dyslexia and post-traumatic stress disorder. “If you have to negotiate space because of your disability, you’ve been gathered, you no longer belong to the cohort. There’s everyone in the cohort, and you try to say I belong, I belong, I belong.”
Master’s makes career goals possible
The 2022 grads, Juanita and Natashia, were interested in helping others as counsellors but knew further schooling would be required. So graduating with master’s degrees means the world to the Marshalls.
Natashia had been working as a social worker in Lac La Biche, Alberta. but when she moved to Edmonton a few hours away, she struggled to find work as a mental health therapist. Jobs in the field required a master’s degree. It was the same for Juanita, who didn’t begin her post-secondary education until she was in her 50s, and after raising 3 children. Despite completing an undergraduate degree in social work, her health challenges which include post-traumatic stress disorder, dyslexia, and an autoimmune disease, made it difficult to find work in that field.
“I have all this life experience, I have one degree, but do I actually feel employable?” recalled Juanita on her decision to enrol at AU. “For me to go into Athabasca University, it meant I could be in the profession that I wanted … the choices for me are now infinite.”
“For me to go into Athabasca University, it meant I could be in the profession that I wanted … the choices for me are now infinite.”– Juanita Marshall, Master of Counselling '22
Support makes learning possible
Pursuing a university degree is never an easy feat, but it can be an even greater challenge when you have learning disabilities like Juanita and Natashia. Both grads recognized early in their education journey that it is okay to ask for help and did so through AU’s Accessibility Services.
Not long after receiving a diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder, Juanita called AU credit accommodation and assessment specialist Lisa Boone to let her know about the diagnosis to see what support was available.
Juanita had twice failed to complete a thesis. “Because I couldn’t get my brain to calm enough to be able to write my paper,” she said.
Boone’s help in accessing specialized disability tools allowed Juanita to complete her thesis. But her words of encouragement were just as invaluable. “When I thought, I can’t finish … and I’m going to have to stop, Lisa would say, ‘Breathe. We all have bad moments, so breathe. You’ve got this. Just slow down.’”
For Natashia, who also has dyslexia in addition to memory challenges related to a 2020 car accident, just having a letter from Accessibility Services saying she was registered with disabilities made everything a bit easier when starting a new course.
“In other places, you’d have to walk in and explain to a new instructor what your disability is, or explain what’s going on,” Natashia explained. AU was different. “It was a very straightforward way of asking for help and showing that you were part of something without having to negotiate for that.”
“In other places, you’d have to walk in and explain to a new instructor what your disability is, or explain what’s going on. It was a very straightforward way of asking for help and showing that you were part of something without having to negotiate for that.”– Natashia Marshall, Master of Counselling '22
Making lasting connections
While the family credits their educational success to working together as a cohort—after all, it’s easier to find study partners when your peers live in the same house. But they also created strong bonds with others in the program. Because of the extra time it took Juanita and Natashia to finish, they met students from several different cohorts and graduating classes.
“What I really appreciated about the AU experience is that I had all these wonderful champions, classmates, and support people who had already graduated, who were helping me and offering support,” said Natashia.
Those bonds have endured well beyond their studies. In fact, when Natashia started a new job this past April, she knew she could lean on her former classmates if she needed help solving a problem.
“It’s wonderful to have this support community around me if I have an ethical dilemma, or you have somebody that you’re not quite sure what to do with.”
“We have text threads, we’ve been to other students’ homes,” added Juanita. “It’s as if we’re all learning how to be counsellors, we have the same support network who understand what you did.”
Don’t struggle in isolation
Natashia and Juanita hope their experiences and successes at AU can serve as an example for others with disabilities who might be uncertain about pursuing a university degree.
“Part of the realities of learning disabilities is each individual in their own way knows they don’t fit,” explains Juanita. This impacts one’s sense of self and their self confidence to the point some people with disabilities try to pretend to be “normal” to fit in—even at the expense of seeking support, she added.
“I’m going to pretend I’m normal and try to figure out what it looks like to be normal. And I’m not going to tell anyone, and I’m just going to suffer, and I’m going to struggle, and I’m going to try and pass.”
“My biggest advice is don’t do that.”
Bright futures ahead
With their degrees in hand, the trio of Marshall women continue to work toward a brighter future. Natashia is settling into her new job, Sarah Jane is working as a therapist, and Juanita is also working as a therapist and has already begun taking courses to become a registered psychologist and setting her sights on a doctorate after that.
“It’s this wonderful, joyful feeling of I want to be happier. I’m really happy. I’d like to be happier,” said Juanita. “I think the biggest happiness is because I’m employable.”