Chase Soosay said he was stunned when a professor mentioned he wanted to nominate him for one of MacEwan University's most prestigious student awards.
So when the school's president, Dr. Annette Trimbee, called in June, telling him he had won the President's Medal, he was even more amazed.
"I was so overwhelmed with joy and I was so excited I couldn't even believe it," he told CBC News this week.
The annual award honours an exceptional graduating student — someone with great grades who works to make their community a better place.
Soosay, who grew up in Maskwacis and is a member of Samson Cree Nation, graduated this spring with a bachelor of commerce. He majored in accounting and plans to work for KPMG in Edmonton this fall.
Though he thrived at MacEwan, Soosay's path to becoming a top award-winner at graduation was a winding one and he has hopes of helping fellow Indigenous students reach similar heights.
Soosay said he was not a standout student in high school and in 2012, when he graduated, he was unsure about his career path, but enrolled at the University of Alberta.
The school was not a great fit for him at the time. Classes were large and he knew few people who had navigated the institution.
"I just felt like another number," he recalled.
He left school and worked a series of jobs, in concrete, landscaping, security and roofing.
Eventually, he went back to school, following friends to MacEwan, where he decided to study business management. His plan was to work for the RCMP someday.
A tragedy in the fall semester of his first year changed the course of his university career.
Just one week before midterms, Soosay learned his older brother had died.
"My world came to a sudden stop," he said earlier this month in his virtual convocation address.
Soosay had already lost his father to cancer years ago. Now he had lost his only brother, and assignment deadlines loomed.
Frantic and not knowing what to do, he turned to kihêw waciston, MacEwan's centre for Indigenous students.
Advisers told his teachers what happened and supported him as he grieved.
During a break from school, he spoke with elders and others in his community — about his loss and a path forward.
After taking a harder look at the criminal justice system, and its effects on Indigenous communities like his, he realized he no longer wanted to pursue policing.
"I don't want to put my own people away," he remembered thinking at the time.
Soosay returned to school, where he earned high grades, volunteered, earned dozens of scholarships and got involved with multiple student groups.
He has a dream of starting his own scholarship fund and mentorship program for youth in his home community one day.
"I want to give back in any way that I can and support Indigenous youth and just give them the tools and resources so they can succeed as well," he said.