Completing degree was 'a long struggle'

October 07, 2004, vol. 31, no. 3
By Stuart Colcleugh

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Laura Cooper's doctoral thesis has been hailed as a remarkable discourse on living with HIV/AIDS.

But she says it's equally remarkable that she ever completed a thesis at all. “It's been a long struggle,” says Cooper, who receives her doctorate in anthropology this month. “My son was four when I started college,” in 1986, “and now he's in university himself.”

Cooper began her academic journey promisingly with an arts diploma and a Governor General's medal for outstanding academic performance at East Kootenay community college. She completed her bachelor of arts degree at SFU, as well as her master of arts, with a thesis on economic development and indigenous peoples in rural Belize.

But along the way, she has endured a seemingly endless string of family crises that would derail all but the most resilient students. They include the 1987 disappearance of her father, presumed drowned, her sister Alex Keating's 1989 HIV diagnosis, her brother-in-law James Keating's HIV infection, her own battle with cancer in 1995 and her mother's death from cancer in 1996.

“It was just one thing after another,” says Cooper, a single mother who teaches anthropology at Kwantlen university college and is an SFU course supervisor and tutor-marker.

She planned to do her doctoral dissertation on sustainable development issues in the Caribbean. But the emotional demands of her personal life became too much and she virtually abandoned the project and her PhD goal.

Abandoned, that is, until her academic supervisor and friend Marilyn Gates called two years before her thesis deadline. “She said, ‘change your topic, find anything that works and I'll support you.' ”

Cooper's new topic is her sister Alex. “We created a very powerful collaborative ethnographic narrative of her life experience with HIV,” says Cooper, “and how her story constitutes a counter story against a lot of the stereotypes and stigmas associated with persons infected with HIV.”

Cooper's ethnography - a format using anthropological practices and field research techniques to study people's daily lives - is experimental in several respects, not least being the full participation of her sister.

SFU anthropologist Parin Dossa calls it “a groundbreaking collaborative research and dialogue” and “an important contribution to the much-debated topic of equality of rights and justice.”

For Cooper, it represents more than a professional milestone. It is a deeply personal product of two siblings that has left them closer than ever and forever changed by the experience.

“Now,” she sighs, “I'm ready for a rest.”

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