When Paula Whissell completed a college certificate 34 years ago, it was the best she expected to achieve at the time. She was from a small northern Ontario town and had little family or financial support, so she quickly turned her mind to work, raising a family and supporting her husband as he pursued his career at Transport Canada.
When she and her family finally settled in Ottawa and Whissell joined Carleton as a temporary employee for what is now Carleton University OnLine, she had three young daughters under the age of 10.
Today, those three girls all have bachelor degrees from Carleton and Whissell herself nailed her own BA in Sociology on the wall beside the others when she graduated in February.
A graduate administrator in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton since 2007, Whissell is content with her job, her colleagues and her students.
“Completing my degree hasn’t really changed anything for me,” says Whissell. “It was a personal accomplishment.”
The road to that accomplishment began in 2003 with Carleton’s Bridging Program for Women, provided by the Centre for Initiatives in Education.
“I started with the bridging course as a transition to getting back into studying, and to see if I could actually do university-level courses,” recalls Whissell. “After taking a few more years away from studying because the girls were still young, I then applied for and was accepted to the MDPW (Management Development Program for Women).
The former Sprott School of Business program was designed for working women who wanted to develop management skills to use in their immediate environment.
After she completed the MDPW in 2008, Whissell began taking credit courses in Women and Gender Studies and, eventually, a colleague suggested she settle into a discipline and finish a degree. The sociology program offered her variety and challenge.
“Completing my degree gave me the opportunity to take courses outside my comfort zone and provided insight into areas of interest where I had little knowledge. It also provided an opportunity to build on my skills, keep an active mind and develop relationships with faculty and staff,” says Whissell.
“One of the biggest challenges for me during my academic studies was the balance of work, family and homework. I took some evening classes, and when I took daytime classes, I made up time by starting early or staying after 4:30, which took time away from family.”
Always striving to do her best—some call her an over-achiever—Whissell learned to function on less sleep, manage her time strategically and prepare meals in advance.
“I also relied more on my family for support and the daily functioning of our household.”
Her daughters, who challenged Whissell to take difficult courses, also took some electives with their mother as they pursued their own studies.
Josee, 27, graduated with a BA honours degree in Psychology two years ago and has now completed her first year of a master’s at Carleton. Emilee, 24, earned her B.Sc in Biology last year and is working on her master’s at the University of Alberta. Twenty-two-year-old Tarah completed her Commerce degree from Sprott this spring.
“It was fun to take courses with (my daughters),” says Whissell, “and it added a bit of competition.”
With her studies behind her, Whissell is grateful to her department, her departmental administrator and the department chairs and graduate co-ordinators who provided flexibility in her work schedule while she worked on her degree.
“It only seems fit to mention our tuition benefit and the career development fund at Carleton, which helped make my degree possible. I would like to thank several faculty in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology for welcoming me into their courses and for their support and guidance,” says Whissell, adding that undergraduate administrator and friend Kim Mitchell was invaluable for her encouragement and help with assignments.