Frank Watts is a student in the Interim Aboriginal University Preparation Program who overcame addiction and trauma to go back to school. Now he's completing a research assistantship at SFU's Bill Reid Centre and pursuing a bachelor of arts degree at SFU in the fall.

Community, Interim Aboriginal University Preparation Program, Students

Indigenous student overcomes addiction to pursue BA studies at SFU

August 09, 2019
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After suffering early trauma from the Canadian residential school system and developing a dependency on drugs and alcohol, Frank Watts has since turned his life around. He got sober during a six-month treatment program and decided to go back to school. Now he’s planning to pursue a bachelor of arts at Simon Fraser University.

Watts was accepted into the Interim Aboriginal University Preparation Program (IAUPP) at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences after graduating from the Native Education College in Vancouver, B.C. on the Dean’s List and as class valedictorian. He currently works as a research assistant in the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Studies, where he assists in the digitization of the Centre’s collection of artifacts.

Watts’s research assistantship, to which he gained access through academic performance, is one aspect of the IAUPP. The program integrates multiple disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences, with Indigenous perspectives. It offers a supportive environment that helps Indigenous students transition into undergraduate life.

“The IAUPP program really helped, because it’s Native-oriented and it gave me the support I never thought I’d find,” says Watts. “You can try to make the world better through education. And having the support of something like the IAUPP program makes it easier to transition into university.”

Watts is a member of the Nisga’a Nation, from the village of Gingolx. His Nisga’a name, Gwiisuksgumilx (“gwee-suks-gum-ilch”), means “diving seal.”

His time in the residential school system was a traumatic period in Watts’s life. He describes having witnessed physical and sexual violence against the Indigenous community. The experiences he lived through contributed to Watts’s reliance on drugs, which eventually developed into an addiction that he shook at the age of 46. He is now three years sober.

“A lot of people are scared to apply to programs like IAUPP,” says Watts. “As a kid I was always told, ‘You’ll never amount anything.’ But I rose above it.”

The first of his family ever to attend university, Watts will be transitioning into a bachelor of arts program with the intent to bridge into environmental science. Having worked as an environmental monitor for three years in the mining industry in northern B.C., Watts loves to be out in nature and to work in land management.

“It’s important to me to have one of our own people managing our lands,” says Watts. “I want to be able to do that through environmental sciences. I love being out in Mother Nature.”

Watts is earnest and forthright with sharing his story of overcoming a traumatic past. Having lost loved ones to their difficult pasts, Watts wants to show others that it is never too late to change one’s path.

“I want people to know my story so they know how important it is to let go of anger and focus on forgiveness,” says Watts. “If I didn’t forgive, I wouldn’t be here.