It took him awhile but Vernon Watchmaker can finally boast that he has graduated from university.
Watchmaker, a 35-year-old father of seven, received his Native Studies degree from the University of Alberta at the mid-November convocation.
“It’s something I always wanted to do since high school,” said Watchmaker, who was born and raised on the Kehewin Cree Nation. “And I’m hoping all my kids have this opportunity. I’m hoping others see this and benefit from it as well. I hope they stay the course and are determined to finish something they want to do.”
Watchmaker is now working full-time for the Kehewin Cree Nation Peacekeepers, an advocacy group that specializes in environmental and land issues pertaining to First Nations.
Watchmaker had worked for this group during the summers in 2009 and 2010. He was hired as a full-time employee after completing his university studies this past August.
By accepting this job in St. Paul, however, Watchmaker is forced to spend most of his time apart from his young family in Edmonton. He has five children, ranging in ages from four to nine, with his second wife.
His two oldest children from his first marriage, who are 13 and 14, live with their mother.
St. Paul is about a two-hour drive from Edmonton. As a result, Watchmaker lives on the Kehewin Cree Nation (about 30 minutes away) with his parents during weekdays and travels to Edmonton for weekends.
“It’s a bit hard on the family life,” he said.
But he is accustomed to life obstacles - he had plenty to overcome en route to completing his university degree.
One of the most difficult times for him was when he was forced to live in a tent in a city campground with his family for about three weeks while he was trying to make ends meet in 2009.
After graduating from Kehewin High School, Watchmaker held down various jobs. His longest position was working as a roofer for four years.
But then he decided to go back to school. He started taking a light load of courses in the Native Studies program at the University of Alberta back in 2002.
But he left school in ’06 when he landed a job with the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations.
Watchmaker then returned to university in ’09 to complete his degree.
So what was his secret to juggling his family life and his academic responsibilities?
“You really had to schedule your time,” he said. “There were some late nights for me. And I pulled some over-nighters when I had to study for exams.”
Watchmaker is hoping his story inspires others. He said he does consider himself a bit of a role model.
“Especially to my kids,” he said. “But I know I’m not the only one who has gone through this.”
Watchmaker added there are countless others with young families who have returned to school.
He is glad with the path he has taken.
“I can definitely say completing this was worthwhile,” he said.