Great grandmother decided to spend her retirement in a classroom

Shirley Irwin, 63, returned to the classroom to fulfill her life-long dream to be a university graduate.

On Saturday, she will walk across the stage to receive her Bachelor of Indigenous Fine Arts from the University of Regina.

Irwin faced some challenges in her journey, but persevered.

“At first I thought I was too old because everyone there were young kids,” she said. “I was a bit intimidated. But after a while I didn’t care, I just wanted to learn.”

Irwin from the Cote First Nation has eight children,13 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

“I wanted to prove to my grandchildren and kids, and anyone else, that you’re not too old to go back to school,” she said. “You can do it,”

Irwin actually began her education journey three decades ago.

She attended university for a year and a half, in the 1990s, but dropped out in order to earn a living for her family.

She worked for 17 years for the City of Regina as a transit bus operator before taking an early retirement.

Irwin, during her career as a bus driver for the City of Regina.
Irwin, during her career as a bus driver for the City of Regina.

However retirement didn’t completely satisfy the ambitious grandmother.

“I wanted to go back and finish my university classes,” said Irwin. “It was a big adjustment because I hadn’t been to school since the 90s. [There was] a lot of reading and writing, learning to use a laptop, writing essays [and] not short ones."”

In her classes, she was surrounded by other students her grandchildren’s age. Irwin even took a class with her granddaughter.

It proved to be mutually beneficial.

Irwin helped her granddaughter get to the early morning classes on time, and her granddaughter helped with some of the modern challenges of attending university.

Although initially intimidated to be decades older than other students, she was surprised by her reception on campus. Her classmates were both welcoming and very respectful.

“They were all good to me,” said Irwin. “Some of them would call me Elder or kokum.”

“One young student wanted me to guide him, to share my knowledge with him," she said, adding jokingly. “I asked him, ‘What knowledge?’ ”

Throughout her four years back in school, Irwin’s family provided constant encouragement and support, even when she wanted to quit, she said.

“I was surprised that she wanted to go back, but I encouraged her to do it,” said Megan Melenchuk, one of Irwin’s daughters. “I was able to help her through it because I was in school myself.”

Irwin’s venture back to school had a profound impact on their entire family, said Melenchuk, who is in recovery for addiction issues.

“Her being in school kept encouraging me to keep going in my recovery,” she said. “I wanted to support [my mom] as much as she supported me in my life.”

There were plenty of family challenges throughout Irwin’s return to school, said Melenchuk, but the family stuck together and supported each other. They still found humour in some of the challenges.

Through the highs and lows, Irwin said she is very proud of her decision to go back to school, so much so that she’s considering returning again to earn her Masters in Indigenous Studies.

“A lot of people told me they’re very inspired by me,“ said Irwin. “They’re proud I took this big step, and made it.”

She will likely be the only one from her generation in her graduating class, but it doesn't bother her because the only thing on her mind are the stairs.

“I’m very excited about convocating,” she said. “I just hope I don’t trip.”

NC Raine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Eagle Feather News