Dara Kelly

Learning About Learning: Dr. Kelly’s Education Beyond Borders

Dr. Dara Kelly is from Leq'á:mel and Sts’ailes First Nations and an assistant professor of Indigenous business at the Beady School of Business at SFU. Her path to becoming a professor was straightforward, but it wasn’t necessarily what she planned. She learned a lot about learning inside and outside the classroom on her journey to being called Doctor Kelly. 

Kelly went into University straight from high school and failed almost all her courses. She struggled academically without much support in the science program but had lots of fun with new friends. The transition to adulthood and independence also felt jarring. She ultimately took a break after feeling discouraged by her lack of success. 

The next year she travelled to India where she stayed for six months. “I had the most amazing time and it opened up my eyes to this sense of the globe and the planet and the fact that people live in different places and they have different experiences being exposed to different languages, different cultures, different religions, different foods... everything about it was just astounding,” she recalled. 

She learned so much and now her advice for young people wanting to leave their home community to travel is “Stay safe because the world is a really unpredictable place.” Upon her return, she decided to go back to university and transfer from the science program to the First Nations Studies program, which she loved.

Illustration by Shaikara David

“It was the first time that I ever felt a sense of belonging with other Indigenous students. We just took the most amazing courses that affirmed our family's reality. That was where I first developed a really critical voice around the experience of colonization,” she remembered. Growing up downtown Vancouver, she remembered how her experience as an Indigenous person wasn't something discussed in high school. 

“Having a community of other students who have experienced this from other places and having this history of Canada revealed to me through my courses was actually very shocking because it's the first time that I felt that I had the truth being told to me,” she reflected. Her studies armed her with the language she needed to describe that experience, to express herself and gain perspective on what was happening. 

She graduated with her bachelors degree after six years then worked as an academic advisor. Dr. Kelly started thinking about grad school. Encouraged by an academic mentor, she applied to continue her education in New Zealand, knowing they had strong Indigenous scholars, powerful writers and theorists. 

“I was not a strong reader. I was not a strong writer, but I built a community around me to help me get through my degree because the opportunities that are on the other side of that, having the title of a doctor allows you to do so much in life. Being a professor is only one pathway, but it's just like this door that opens and allows you to do so many things.”

She was accepted to three graduate schools in New Zealand and traveled to decide which offer to accept. She ended up taking a Masters in Commerce after a life changing conversation with a professor who admitted her that very day based on Dean’s discretion. It was an unexpected turn of events that landed her where she needed to be. 

“You create the opportunity because you prepare yourself for something you don't even know you're ready for. Be ready because if the opportunity hits you, take it, take it when it comes.”

She learned a lot of life lessons from that interaction that shaped her educational destiny:

“Take every opportunity that you can to talk to a wide range of people, because you never know who's going to be that person who's gonna help you get to the next stage. Success is never ever done by yourself. You are never successful all alone. You are successful because of a whole network of people who all help to hold you back and who all supports you in the world. Because if you are somebody who acts and speaks from the heart and believes in what they're doing, people can see that and they will want to help you.” 

While she learned what she needed to excel in her field, she also learned a lot about education. She says, “Education is not about how much you know, you know, it's not like you go through school and collect knowledge. Education is a tool set. It teaches you how to think critically. It teaches you how to be with people. It teaches you how to have conversation and how to talk and be compassionate.” 

“A lot of university I've found was learning compassion, learning about the way things are in the world and how there's sort of an underlying reality and learning about humanity in that process. Being with an open heart in your educational experiences is so important,” Dr. Kelly continued. 

Ultimately what she learned would shape her perspective on her methodology as an educator. “You can't educate the mind without educating the heart. There's no separation from the mind and the heart and that the education journey is about always making sure you're staying connected,” she believes. 

As a new educator in the pandemic, Dr. Kelly’s found the professional aspect most challenging. “Part of it is about making sure that when I'm working from home, that I definitely rest because it's so easy to become a workaholic when you're working from home,” she admits. She’s using traditional Indigenous practices to protect immunity and sharing that knowledge with others to help them through this difficult time.   

Going from Canada to India to New Zealand and back home again taught Dr. Kelly unexpected lessons, let her explore life in a foreign country and found her better able to understand her home and the experience of her people. Her journey around the world opened her mind and heart, while her new title has opened many doors in her world, at the Beady School of Business at SFU and beyond.

Thanks to Alison Tedford for authoring this article.

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