The Hub Grad caps 46-year university journey

Grad caps 46-year university journey

By: Bryan Alary

Brenda Butler raised 3 kids and moved across Canada 4 times during journey that started in 1976

Like many university students who begin their studies in their teens, Brenda Butler (Bachelor of General Studies ’22) did not hit her academic stride on her first attempt.

At the University of Saskatchewan in 1976, Butler says she was closer to majoring in “partying” than general studies.

“I was essentially wasting my parents’ money. I was too busy having fun,” she remembers.

It wasn’t long before the Saskatoon-born Butler decided school just wasn’t for her. In 1978, she opted for a change of scenery and moved north to Dawson City, Yukon. There, she landed a secretarial job at the town office and met her husband, Keith, who at the time worked as a carpenter.

“I was essentially wasting my parents’ money. I was too busy having fun.”

– Brenda Butler (Bachelor of General Studies ’22)

It was the start of a journey that would see the couple raise a family, change both their careers, and move cross-country 3 more times.

There were lessons learned along the way, including that lifelong learning is possible, even in Canada’s Far North. In earning a degree from Athabasca University—46 years after that first foray in university—Butler also learned that the journey is far more important than how long it took to get there.

Spirit of adventure in the Yukon

Life in the Yukon in the late 1970s was rustic, Butler says, and those early years were about pursuing new experiences and adventure. “It was a lot of fun,” she says.

The couple eventually moved to Whitehorse where they established roots. Keith worked for the territorial government while Butler stayed at home for 15 years raising their 3 children. She would eventually find a part-time job at a local library, where she soon found her calling.

“I always loved libraries,” she explains. “I see them as equalizers. They provide information to anyone, regardless of income level.”

“I always loved libraries. I see them as equalizers. They provide information to anyone, regardless of income level.”

Keith and Brenda Butler
Brenda Butler and husband Keith at Kluane Lake, Yukon.

Love of libraries and learning

Butler enjoyed everything about working at the library, including working with librarians, many of whom had their master’s degrees in library science or information studies. As much as leaving university and moving north led her down a path to her life and family, she couldn’t help but feel that something was missing.

“I just always regretted not getting that degree. And once our family was growing up, I thought, you know, I will.”

In 1993, Butler enrolled in a library technician diploma program at SAIT, which was her first experience with distance learning. That gave her enough encouragement to pursue a degree, so in 2003 she enrolled in AU’s Bachelor of General Studies program. Even though she was not an academic all-star in her teens, her marks in those first university courses from 1976 were strong enough to transfer so she didn’t need to start from scratch.

Early days studying at AU

Studying at AU in those days meant submitting assignments through snail mail instead of email, and talking to tutors over the telephone. “It was just a slower process, but it worked,” Butler recalls.

Over the next 19 years, she embraced every aspect of learning. Registering in a new course was a special thrill, and her favourite days were when new course materials arrived in the mail. “When that box arrived from Athabasca, you’d get excited—what am I going to be learning? I loved that.”

She discovered a love of history, including the history of Western Canada, which connected to her Saskatchewan roots. But she also enjoyed English and the creative writing courses that she took with tutor Vivian Zenari.

Butler family sitting on a bench

Education a family priority

Butler’s love of learning has become a family passion. Keith went back to school in the 1980s to earn a civil engineering technology diploma (the family moved to Alberta temporarily so he could pursue his studies). The couple’s now adult children have each gone on to earn degrees in education, nursing, and the fine arts.

“We always impressed upon our kids that education isn’t a means to a job,” Butler explains. “There’s value in having that education, so study what you love and then the jobs will work out.”

That was advice that Butler modelled herself. When Butler and Keith moved from Whitehorse to Saskatoon in 2008, she took a job at the University of Saskatchewan’s library, where she worked for about a decade. Even though she did not yet have a degree—and in fact she retired before finishing—her pursuit of higher education did help advance her career.

“The fact that I was working towards my degree, that I was pursuing lifelong learning, said something.”

“We always impressed upon our kids that education isn’t a means to a job … study what you love and then the jobs will work out.”

Learning never stops

After retirement in 2018, the couple moved to Ottawa where Butler continued to plug away at her degree in between visits with grandchildren. And while her AU experience is officially drawing to a close and comes with “a bit of melancholy,” her learning adventure is far from over. Butler just completed her first novel, which she hopes to publish. The book is about a young woman with bipolar disorder and her journey toward wellness.

After 19 years as an AU student, Butler will celebrate convocation on June 17 with the rest of the class of 2022. She’ll actually be on the road travelling to Prince George, B.C., to visit one of her daughters, but plans to follow the online festivities.

It’s a fitting farewell to what has been a flexible, truly lifelong learning journey in 3 different provinces and territories.

“That’s the beauty of Athabasca University, for sure.”

  • June 9, 2022
Guest Blog from:
Bryan Alary