Paulina Johnson knows her late grandmother will be there in spirit when she crosses the convocation stage on Wednesday morning to receive her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology and History.
Her grandmother, Grace Swampy, earned both a Bachelor of Education (1979) and a Master of Education (1981) degree from UAlberta, and Johnson is the first family member to follow in her footsteps. But while her parents and grandfather will be travelling from their home town of Hobbema to be at convocation, Swampy sadly passed away last month.
“She’ll be there,” says an emotional Johnson. “She was so proud that I went to the U of A too.”
Johnson’s postsecondary journey began at Red Deer College, where she initially studied biological sciences. But after transferring to UAlberta in her third year, she decided to switch majors and pursue a passion she had discovered for anthropology and history.
In addition to earning her degree and being accepted into graduate studies, Johnson recently learned she is the recipient of three awards: the Zita and Jack Rosen Award, the RBC/Royal Eagle Award for Aboriginal Students and the Faculty of Arts Outstanding Leadership Medal.
She was particularly honoured to receive the RBC/Royal Eagle Award, which is given to a student who has demonstrated an interest in the preservation of traditional Aboriginal culture and leadership within the Aboriginal community. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “It was pretty inspiring.”
Johnson has worked alongside her mother to mentor Aboriginal youth in Hobbema through activities such as Girl Guides, horsemanship programs and cultural camps where young people learn Cree traditions and stories from the community’s elders.
“It’s all about healing and making sure that the youth understand who they are as Aboriginals and as individuals so they always have that foundation of knowing their identity,” she explains. “We’re trying to instill that you can get ahead in life if you just believe in yourself.”
Johnson has also had opportunities to explore her culture in her studies, including an internship at the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) last summer where she researched the relationship that the Cree and Blackfoot First Nations of Alberta had towards the elk, horse and porcupine, and how this relationship influenced them in a spiritual way.
Her time at the RAM, which she extended by staying on as a volunteer during the fall term, also taught her about the way museums operate and how sensitive materials and subject matter are handled. “It was a great experience,” she says. “Working there made me realize that this is something I want to continue on with.”
Johnson will start a Master’s program in Public History at the University of Western Ontario this fall, and hopes to one day teach archaeology at a university.
“I think my future is always going to be anthropology and history,” she says. “When I transferred [to UAlberta] I felt like a part of me became more complete. For the first time in a long time, I knew what I was doing and where I was supposed to be. All the experiences – the perseverance, trying my best in everything – made me stronger as a person.”
Before leaving for Ontario to face the rigours of grad school, Johnson is spending the rest of her summer immersed in another activity she loves: golf.
Throughout her studies, Johnson also excelled as an athlete, playing several years of varsity golf. Now, along with working at the Wolf Creek Golf Resort in Ponoka, she will also be training with her new golf coach Laura Witvoet, who was the first Albertan to play on the LPGA Tour.
“We’re going to see what I can do this summer,” she says, and if her past accomplishments are any indication, Johnson will be a name to watch for in the worlds of both academia and professional golf in the years to come.
Department of Anthropology
Department of History & Classics