Sasha’s Story: first-in-family educational success
New Psychology student shares advice on overcoming social hurdles, finding balance, and putting education first
You know the expression pinch me I’m dreaming?
Sasha Gladu has been doing that every day since September.
The soon-to-be Athabasca University Psychology student and single mother can’t quite get over the fact that, in just seven months, she’s achieved what many people in her shoes might not be able to.
Since June, she graduated from an Edmonton college with a diploma in addictions counselling. Now she can work in a field of interest, with options for growth. Immediately thereafter, she was accepted into AU. She found a two-bedroom home, where she and her family now live — their first real abode.
Next up was the arrival of a baby girl — also the first. And, finally, at the end of November, around her birthday, the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation officially awarded Gladu a handsome scholarship, to make the transition to university that much easier.
All of these events. In that order and over such a short period of time. That’s a lot of good news for anyone with a similar wish list.
But here’s what makes these achievements all the more telling:
For starters, the house Gladu qualified for and occupies is subsidized from a housing welfare non-profit. It will pair nicely with the main income she receives monthly from the government.
And when she took occupancy of her new home at the end of August, it was just in the nick of time: she delivered her baby girl, Luna, on September 15, one week after her son, Slayter, entered Grade One.
Gladu is only 24-years-old.
It’s for all of the above that she wants to feel that pinch — especially this Christmas — so that when she wakes up to the beaming bright smiles of Luna and Slayter, and breaks off a chunk of the half-eaten gingerbread house on the kitchen counter, she knows that she really is awake and not dreaming.
But it could all just as easily have been a dream, Gladu acknowledges, as it is for so many other young Indigenous people like herself.
“Definitely from a financial aspect it’s been rough. Having one kid was hard enough; having two, you have to cover their costs,” she says.
To go from two-and-a-half years of sharing a stable- and stress-free home with her best friend, only to have it abruptly disrupted last spring, leaving Gladu in a temporary state of couch-surfing, “alone and pregnant,” with a six-year-old in tow, would be tough for anybody.
When she received Homeward Trust’s approval last spring and moved into her home by the end of August, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“It was good timing. I don’t want to ever put myself in any position to jeopardize the things that I have now,” she affirms.
Once daughter Luna was born, Gladu says her drive to succeed took on a life of its own. She cast numerous irons into the proverbial fire and has been trying hard to grab them while they’re hot.
Embracing her newfound discipline is exciting and motivating, she notes.
She’s had a couple of excellent mentors to help. Her aunt Karen, for example, who also lives in Edmonton, is a huge inspiration.
“She has her master’s degree, she is Indigenous, and we talk every day. If I’m going through a rough time she’s very level-headed and talks things through and counsels me,” says Gladu.
And her college teacher, Ralph Makokis, from the Nechi Institute in St. Albert, advised Gladu to keep her eye on the prize and “start what you finish.”
His words resonated.
Last June, from the rented-out room at the Ramada, Aunt Karen proudly cheered her niece on as she received her diploma at the Nechi Institute’s convocation ceremony.
That, says Gladu, was the cap-off to her hard work.
“Graduating made me feel proud. I mean, I went to my graduation pregnant, but I was so happy!”
First in family
Now, just a few weeks shy of starting her program at Athabasca University, she says she feels a determination like never before.
“I know that I [will graduate] because I want it badly enough.”
Gladu is of Cree heritage. She is the first of her immediate family members to graduate high school. And with a child to care for, no less.
“And now I’m also going to be the first in my family to get a [Bachelor’s] degree,” she adds, although it hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s hard some days, but the determination is there,” she says.
“It was hard but graduating made me feel proud — I mean, I went to my graduation pregnant — but I was so happy!”– Sasha Gladu
She is drawn to “the profession of healing.” And she especially gets a charge from hearing other people’s stories of resilience leading to success. Last month, Metro Edmonton featured her in a piece about social housing. Upon publication, Gladu said a few Indigenous people contacted her to show their support.
“Indigenous people are very silent people. And they were talking about the hardships that they’ve been through,” she explains.
“So [for me] to have gone out there saying — ‘I’m a young, single mother of two, and this is what has happened to me’ —kind of gave people that boost that they needed to tell their own stories.”
Gladu would like to inspire Indigenous people to finish high school, even to pursue post-secondary education.
“I want to do it by telling my story … by motivationally speaking about things that I’ve been through myself, like domestic violence and growing up in foster care, and to overcome what I’ve overcome,” she says.
She says she’s all-too aware of certain social stereotypes and that some people have been surprised to learn “that I’m a young Cree mom [with] an education, now pursuing my studies even further.”
And she would like to help change some of those notions, and to be a force that helps to stamp out racial profiling.
“If I can talk to people about that and tell them that they don’t have to become a product of their environment, that they can do good things, then I know that I’m leading by example.”
A Place to Call Home
Gladu made some smart choices when going through the housing application process. Though her home was move-in-ready in August, says she could have moved elsewhere even sooner as she’d been approved for other homes in various Edmonton neighbourhoods.
But it was important to her that she wait for the right place to turn up nearer to her son’s school in the city’s north.
The patience paid off.
“I have a home to call my own; I have food; I have money to get by. I’m not struggling at this point. It’s a great feeling,” she says.
For fun, she likes to embrace her inner artist.
“I like to go out and dance and I do a lot of dancing at home. I’m very musically inclined; I don’t play many instruments, a few chords on the guitar, and I like to play piano.”
These pastimes provide her a level of calm and contentment.
“One of the coping mechanisms that has really helped me [is] I love to write, all the time.
“It varies with my mood. Sometimes it’s poetry, sometimes it’s just free-reign, depending on how I’m feeling. I have quite a few musician friends so sometimes we’ll write lyrics together.”
“If I can talk to people about that and tell them that they don’t have to become a product of their environment, that they can do good things, then I know that I’m leading by example.”– Sasha Gladu
Post-secondary pathway to success
For now, the trio can enjoy the holiday season in their cozy abode. A couple of weeks ago, the mother of two went to Vancouver to introduce baby Luna to her brother and his family. She’ll be spending Christmas with her own father. Between he and her mother, Gladu has 11 half-siblings.
Starting in January, she says her life will be about finding balance and that she’ll ring in the new year embracing her Athabasca University menu of course options.
Her diploma from the Nechi Institute helped her to accelerate into her program, starting her degree in the third year by virtue of her transfer credits — the selling point which, she says, led her to AU.
“I’m looking forward to starting. Sometimes I find myself getting a little antsy being at home with my baby all day, so this will give me something else to do.”
She’ll start with one course at a time, but she aspires to complete her degree within two years, so that she can begin her career as a mental health worker, advising homeless people.
And maybe one day she’ll even pursue a master’s degree. “I know if I work really hard I can do it,” she says.
Importantly, Gladu concedes she has zero regrets.
“If I could go back and do it all over I would. I love my kids. And this is why I’m pursuing my degree — not just for me but for them.
“I want them to know that I was a young mom and I did the best I could for them. I want them to look at me when they’re older and say ‘Mom, you worked really hard for us.’ I want to inspire my children — not have them look at me like I was crazy.”