Ryerson student, Julie Robertson.

Photo: Alanna Rizza

People of Ryerson: Julie Robertson

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By Alanna Rizza

When Julie Robertson started her career in merchandise management, little did she know 25 years later she would quit her job to start studying geographic analysis at Ryerson.

“I complained and my family said for me to either do something about it or shut up and go to work,” she said.

Robertson said her family was supportive of her quitting her job. Her son was in post-secondary at the time and said he was happy for her going back to school as long as she didn’t go to the same university as him.

So as a single mother, Robertson juggled school, worked part-time and had a research position with one of her geography professors.

After Robertson graduated in 2012, she planned on pursuing a graduate degree.

But before she could continue with her academic career, Robertson’s rare auto-immune disease, P-ANCA Vasculitis, attacked her lungs. This led her to be put into a medically-induced coma on the day of the first anniversary of her father’s death.

“I saw my dad when I was in my coma, I know I saw him. I mean I had bizarre, crazy nightmare dreams. But this was totally different,” Robertson said.

She said when she saw her father it was like she was in between a dream and reality. When Robertson was young she would go flying with her father when he was learning to be a pilot. But she said this time he wouldn’t let her fly with him because she was supposed to stay with her mother.

The coma lasted 10 days.

“[Doctors] say they drug you and you’re pain free and you’re in this limbo state, but that’s a load of crap. There were things that hurt me so bad that I wanted to die.”

“So when you wake up… you start to have a different outlook on life,” Robertson said.

When she finally woke up, she could only bend one finger. Robertson had to learn how to walk and talk again, she also struggled with her memory. After about six months of chemotherapy, taking steroids and immune suppressants, the doctors told her it would take her about two to three years until she could go back to school. But Robertson said she was always optimistic and that her family helped her along the way.

“I’m really happy. It sounds stupid, but I’m really happy everyday that I wake up and I’m on the green side of the grass,” she said.

Only a year later, in September 2013, Robertson was ready to go back to school in the environmental science and management program.

Robertson, now 57 and currently in her second year of the graduate program, has continued to do what makes her happy. She recently competed in Ryerson’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition on March 3 to improve her memory. 3MT is a competition for graduate students who summarize their thesis projects in under three minutes and only use one PowerPoint slide. “To memorize three minutes, it took me about a month. But now I’ll know it forever,” she said. Robertson came in second place.

Her project was a comparison of maps that showed locations of caribou in northern Nunavut. The maps show the number of caribou recorded by Inuit people using oral tradition, in comparison to the data from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut government.

“I have always had a passion for geography and the Arctic. My family has always joked that I have a built-in GPS.” Robertson’s great, great grandfather was a Shawnee Indian and this also peaked her interest in studying oral tradition and generational knowledge as part of her project.

“I was also interested in looking at the importance of preserving this knowledge before we lose it, and what we can do to ensure that traditional knowledge is used as a science and not just as an after thought.”

Robertson also said a major factor is the generation gap between elders and youth. She said youth aren’t really interested in listening to their grandparents’ stories, knowledge and learning about the environment.

“If I was thirty years younger and healthy, I would go live in the Arctic and work with Inuit youth…I want to be involved. I would love to [start] a non-profit organization that empowers Inuit youth in environmental concerns and traditional knowledge,” she said.

But for now Robertson is continuing to be optimistic about her future and focusing on school.

“You might as well live your life while you have the chance to do so.”

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