“I’m so proud of her,” says Samantha Alexander, 23, seated next to her mom as they chat about Gail Alexander’s big day. “I don’t think any ordinary woman would be able to do what she did.”
Tears build up as she makes that last comment.
On Friday, Gail Alexander convocated from Memorial University with a Bachelor of Education degree, 30 years after she first began taking university courses. To become a teacher was an ambition for the 47-year-old that she is only now realizing.
“It was my lifelong dream to be a teacher, and after having three children, I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. I went to university a couple of times, but it was just too difficult,” she said.
She’s not the lone Alexander graduating from MUN this spring.
Samantha Alexander convocated Wednesday with her Bachelor of Business Administration degree. Her brother Jonathan Alexander, 25, convocated Thursday with a degree in civil engineering.
“As we all got closer to our goal, it was like, holy cow, we’re all graduating the same week,” said Gail. “How weird is that?”
In 1982, Gail enrolled at MUN’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook and briefly attended St. Mary’s University in Halifax the following year. She tried school again at the University of Ottawa in 1991, but even though she had accumulated 20 credits by then, she found it difficult to juggle both family life and her education.
“(My children) were always at the door crying every time I went out, and I was just like, this is not the time for me to be doing this at all, so I said I’d put it on the back burner and wait.”
In addition to Samantha and Jonathan, Gail has a 28-year-old son, Chris.
By 2008, Samantha and Jonathan were both attending MUN while still living at home.
“When I was driving Jon and Sam to MUN everyday, I said, ‘This is crazy, I should be here too.’ So I registered.”
And so began the four-year journey to achieve a goal she set for herself as a young child. Helen Piercey, Gail’s mother, can recall when she was a little girl fascinated by two teachers boarding with the Piercey family in St. George’s on Newfoundland’s west coast.
“The teacher came home with the dangling earrings with all the different colours,” says Piercey, “and she said you couldn’t wait for her to come home, and you’d go in and she’d teach you all the colours of her earrings.”
Piercey is proud of her daughter for following through on her dreams, adding that Gail’s late-father Kevin Piercey would have felt the same way.
“Oh my God, that was my wish,” said Piercey. “She was always an honours student in school, and she could have gone and got (her degree) then, but she raised her children.”
It was initially hard for Gail to enter a learning environment filled with people the same age as her children, but she said classmates accepted her from the first day. Teachers from her program were also very helpful, she adds.
Gail took three courses in her first semester, and has switched from full- to part-time course loads ever since. Over that time, Gail developed relationships with her classmates, and often had them over for study sessions where she was also kind enough to cook supper.
“She actually has friends I went to school with, and she’s classmates and best friends with them,” said Samantha with a laugh. “It was weird to get used to at first, but it’s so normal now.”
Gail even managed to take a course with her daughter — they did a music course in popular music.
“The course we did together, we were almost in competition,” said Samantha. “It was kind of cool that mom was sitting next to me in the classroom, and everyone knew it too.”
There have also been unexpected encounters at the campus watering hole. Gail recalls once after an exam she went to the Breezeway with classmates and came across Jonathan, who proceeded to introduce mom to all his friends.
Between Gail and her two children attending MUN, there was a need to make sure their courses were spread out so that at least someone could be home to help look after Chris, who is autistic. Otherwise, a respite worker was used to allow the three Alexanders to attend school.
“We had to have all the schedules on the wall,” said Gail. “Whoever was home cooked supper. Whoever had the car got the groceries. Whoever was home looked after Chris.”
Gail completed her internship at Virginia Park Elementary in St. John’s and has been substituting at the school since February.
“Sometimes I think people look at me and go, oh, she’s probably a veteran teacher, but my colleagues know I’m still new and in training.”
However, she does not discount the value raising three kids has when it comes to teaching others.
“I think it’s so powerful to be able to teach a child how to read or to make a difference in a child’s life. That’s going to take them places for the rest of their lives.”
She’s excited about what lies ahead now that she has managed to accomplish her lifelong goal.
“What I’ve found is you can do anything you put your mind to. If you have a dream, you can fulfill that dream — you just have to have the drive and determination.”