By Karen Kelly
In 2000, Suzanne Gahagan left the graduate program in Law and Legal Studies to focus on her young family.
Eighteen years later, she found herself sitting in a classroom next to her daughter: both pursuing the same master’s degree.
“I had visited the Law Department to ask about returning and Prof. Diana Majury said: ‘Come back!’” recalls Suzanne. “I felt so welcome—I have been treated like any other student.”
For her daughter, Mackenzie Gahagan Stewart, it took some adjustment..
“It was a little awkward in the beginning as we found our footing in this new terrain,” explains Mackenzie, who had just finished her Bachelor of Arts in Law. “We had to navigate the mother-daughter relationship in a different dynamic, but then we fell into a groove.”
A Common Interest
The pair had some things in common beyond their familial bond: both had earned a Bachelor of Arts in Law from Carleton, both were interested in issues related to women and the law, and both served as teaching assistants. After focusing on Law as an undergraduate, Suzanne was eager to do further research and writing on women’s issues while pursuing a master’s.
“I was always interested in supporting those who can’t support themselves, whether children, women or other overlooked groups,” explains Suzanne, who has also worked as an advocate for funded midwifery. “As a result, I have a life goal of improving the lot of women.”
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Those themes also resonate with Mackenzie. She and Suzanne became involved with the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project that works on issues related to incarceration at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre. They organized workshops and discussions that brought former inmates to speak at local community centres.
“We drove all around Ottawa picking these individuals up, so we were able to hear their personal experiences,” recalls Mackenzie. “You don’t usually hear their raw stories, and I felt privileged to do so.”
Suzanne says it’s just one of many new experiences the two have shared.
Tackling Law and Legal Studies Degrees Together
“It was made so much more interesting because Mackenzie is no longer simply my young daughter, but my classmate. There was a great synergy between us. At times, our study group involved us, in our pajamas, at the dining room table.”
Moving forward, both are eager to continue their research. Mackenzie is considering a PhD or law school elsewhere; Suzanne is thinking about pursuing a PhD at Carleton.
“I don’t feel finished yet,” says Suzanne. “I would really like to work on a research paper about risk factors for incarceration as it pertains to women and girls.”
Suzanne Gahagan has a lot of company in the classrooms of the Department of Law and Legal Studies. Dozens of mature students are taking classes: some are pursuing a bachelor’s degree for the first time; others are picking up on a master’s or PhD they had put aside years ago.
“The vast majority are women who at some point started a degree and had to stop because of family obligations, says Christiane Wilke, an associate professor and the graduate supervisor. “Others have been working for an extended period of time.”
Wilke finds they have different worries than younger students, often fearing that they aren’t working fast enough and they won’t be able to adapt to the technology. Some even started their master’s thesis on a typewriter.
“They have different needs than a 20-year-old student, but having them here is so enriching and gratifying. They balance out the classroom in a different way,” explains Wilke. “They bring an enormous sense of experience and perspective, so when the younger students are panicking, the older students are able to mentor them through that.”
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