Nuu-chah-nulth educator earns PhD

Sam Laskaris, April 11, 2019

Kelly Johnsen, who currently teaches at North Island College, recently completed a doctorate thesis on Indigenous content in public education. (Holly Stocking photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

It’s official: A member of the Toquaht Nation can now be called Dr. Johnsen.

That’s because Kelly Johnsen, an instructor at North Island College’s Educational Assistant/Community Support program that focuses on Indigenous issues, has completed all of her requirement to earn a PhD.

Johnsen’s doctorate for her work on Indigenous content in public education is from the University of Victoria. She will be awarded her PhD at UVic’s convocation scheduled for June 10.

“It was a very long journey,” Johnsen said, adding she entered the PhD program back in 2010.

She fulfilled part of the doctorate requirements by taking courses at the school’s Victoria campus. She also earned credits by taking online classes.

She continued to work towards her PhD while also holding down various jobs. Johnsen previously worked for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC).

Johnsen, 48, had varying employment stints with the NTC. She started off as a post-secondary counselor and eventually was promoted to cultural development supervisor.

During a portion of the time she pursued her PhD, Johnsen worked at North Island College, where she is also a department chair in the Human Services faculty.
Besides juggling her own work and personal academic pursuits, striving towards her PhD also came at a stressful period during Johnsen’s life.

“I lost my grandfather and my grandmother during that time,” she said, adding her grandparents died a year apart. “It made things really difficult for a while.”

Johnsen added there came a point last year when she questioned whether to continue her PhD pursuit. A previously approved extension to fulfill all her doctorate requirements expired in April of 2018.

“I thought seriously of just letting it go,” said Johnsen, who works out of the North Island College’s Port Alberni and Courtenay campuses.

But when another extension was granted, Johnsen persevered to complete the remaining compulsory components. She passed the oral examination for her PhD this past winter. Some back-and-forth revisions then occurred with her thesis before her supervisor signed off on it.

Johnsen’s thesis examined traditional Nuu-chah-nulth ways and how they can be incorporated into contemporary post-secondary course work.

“I interviewed three elders over a period of four months,” she said.

Four main themes emerged from her research: time, relationships, echoing and demonstrations.

For the theme of time, observations can be taken over a period to determine where students' strengths are, explained Johnsen. The theme of relationships would be updated by forming improved ties with students to better understand their needs. Echoing would be accomplished through the practice of receiving feedback. And the theme of demonstrations would be met by having students do tasks to determine competency.

“I put them into a medicine wheel framework,” Johnsen said of those four themes.

Johnsen, a graduate of Ucluelet Secondary School, began her post-secondary career by attending Malaspina College, which is now called Vancouver Island University. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies with a focus on psychology in 1995.

She began furthering her education by earning her Masters degree in educational leadership and administration from the University of Victoria in 2008.

Though she has now earned her PhD, Johnsen does not have any plans to go anywhere else. She is quite content with her current positions at North Island College.

“I prefer working in small institutions,” she said. “There is more one-on-one work with students. And I want to continue working in Indigenization.”

Johnsen, however, is also keen to begin work on some other projects. Her University of Victoria instructor Kathy Sanford has asked her to collaborate on future research and writing projects.

Sanford’s husband Tim Hopper, also a UVic professor, will also be involved with these collaborations.

Johnsen is the third member of her family to earn the title of Doctor. Her grandfather on her father’s side was a medical doctor. And her uncle, again on her father’s side, had earned a doctorate from Simon Fraser University.
Johnsen’s Indigenous background is from her mother Gale, a member of the Toquaht Nation. Meanwhile, her father Gary has Scandinavian ancestry.