Lakehead’s Thunder Bay campus was the last place that fine arts student Vanessa Magee thought she’d end up. “I didn’t enjoy high school and I didn’t think I was smart enough for university,” she explains.
As soon as she finished grade 12, Vanessa entered the labour force. She worked in the retail and service sectors before landing a job in the housekeeping department of Thunder Bay’s regional hospital.
Things were running pretty smoothly until April 2008 when Vanessa was struck by a mysterious fever. Her immune system began attacking her nervous system, resulting in a loss of physical mobility. Even with rehabilitation, Vanessa could no longer do her job.
Three years later, she was still battling health problems and trying to figure out how to turn her life around. She happened to pour out her troubles to a man sitting next to her on a flight to Toronto.
He listened and then asked, “Have you ever thought of going back to school?” before rummaging around for a piece of paper. On it, he scrawled the name “Humanities 101,” his name and email, and a colleague’s name and email.
Humanities 101 is Lakehead’s free semester-long, non-credit program that introduces community members to the university experience – in particular, people facing social or economic barriers to postsecondary education.
When Vanessa got home, she Googled her seatmate’s name and discovered it was none other than the current principal of Lakehead’s Orillia campus, Dr. Kim Fedderson. The first Humanities 101 class was the next evening so “I became a Lakehead student 14 hours after my fateful flight,” Vanessa says. It was a step she would have been terrified to take before her chance encounter. “When you look at Lakehead from the outside, it’s like this monster,” she says.
This perception soon changed and at the end of the course, she was chosen as class valedictorian. At the graduation ceremony, Vanessa said: “Every lecture was stimulating and there was something to learn from each one, and more important, something to learn about yourself in the process.”
After completing Humanities 101, Vanessa immediately enrolled in Lakehead’s Fine Arts program as a part-time student and found that she had a special talent for ceramics and sculpture.
She's now won multiple awards in Lakehead’s annual Juried Student Art Exhibition, including an Alumni Association Award for a ceramic piece called “Doggy Bag.” The artwork is a commentary on how some people treat animals like trophies. It’s a ceramic purse in the shape of a dog triggered by what Vanessa describes as ‘the Paris Hilton effect.’ The celebrity socialite was constantly photographed carrying her pet Chihuahua around in her purse. She spawned a legion of copycats who “bought baby Chihuahuas and then abandoned them,” Vanessa says. “They’ve had to start Chihuahua farms to try to rehabilitate these dogs who can’t walk because they’ve been carried their whole life.”
Although Vanessa has a job she enjoys at Lakehead Ironworks Inc., earning her degree is opening doors. She’s considering a career in art therapy – a field she’s drawn to because the act of creating has had such a powerful effect on her life. “Art changed the way I dealt with my illness. When I was struggling, it shone a little light.”
If you'd like to help other students like Vanessa continue their journey to life-long learning, please consider donating to the Lakehead Annual Fund.