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Brown Girl Boss: Meet Elyse Watkins, the Educational Icon

Elyse Watkins is an educational icon. With a Harvard master’s degree under her belt, and currently studying for her doctorate at the University of Toronto, we had the privilege to explore her story as a Brown Girl Boss. She shared with us how her plans didn’t always go as she expected, but always lead her to where she was supposed to be. When we sat down with Elyse, we were able to dive into the experiences that brought her to finding her passion in the field of Education and social policy.

Growing up, as an Indo-Caribbean young woman, Elyse explained that she remembers having one Indo-Guyanese friend with who she automatically connected with and she never fully understood why. They were able to share many similarities that gave them the comforting feeling of home. She would often ask her parents ‘what they were' and didn't always have a concrete answer. However, this missing piece did not stop her from pursuing her dreams and understanding herself.

Looking back, Elyse shared that it was a grade 7 project, where her Caribbean teacher expressed her belief that Elyse and a class partner had what it takes to knock their project out of the park. They ended up entering a science fair, and from that moment, she was sure she wanted to pursue a career as a doctor.

It wasn’t until the last year of her undergraduate degree that she decided she wanted to completely shift gears, take a chance, and move forward to study education after doing a 4th year thesis on anti-oppression. As Indo-Caribbean’s, we are sometimes expected to meet specific expectations around our educational decisions. When Elyse decided to make this drastic change, she explained that she spent a lot of time juggling the idea of pursuing a career in a field she had no experience in, as, for her entire life, she was completely set on being a doctor.

“A lot of people were shocked for the most part but my dad noticed the shift in me the most… When you say you are going to become a doctor, no one challenges you… no one thought it wasn’t a good idea…”

From this point, she decided to push her luck and apply for her Master’s in Education in International Education Policy at the well-known Ivey League School, Harvard University.

“I thought I was out of my mind… I thought I wasn’t going to get in.”

Taking risks was something new to Elyse as she explained that she was always someone who had it all planned out. Accepting this major career shift was not something she took lightly and was a decision she continually battled with before taking the next step.

With her intersectional identity as an Indo-Caribbean woman of color, Elyse shared that her experience at Harvard was one that may shock people because their commitment to addressing diversity and inclusion was exceptional. While at Harvard, she explained that there were so many people from all over the world coming to study, that it was a space where should could feel heard, seen, and her experiences were valued.

“It was a super validating experience because there’s a huge commitment to equity. As I was there when Michael Brown was killed, I realized that I need to fight against anti-black racism. These experiences made me molded, and gave me the strength to fight for equity and is aware and the fact it has on all of our communities.”

At an identity workshop she attended with a friend, she explained that this was the first time she coined the term Canadian Indo-Caribbean when she was asked what her background was. Indo-Caribbean was one that resonated with her and was an exact representation of her cultural background.

Elyse is currently working with a non-profit organization called “People for Education” where their focus is to ensure that children and teens have high-quality education across Canada. Her current focus is exploring what education will look like from here, and into the near future of 2030 and beyond. Like the organization, Senior Policy and Research Manager at People for Education, she is dedicated to her beliefs around anti-racism to ensure that we are enforcing and delivering the much-needed reform within our education system.

As she continues to develop professionally, one of her biggest commitments is ensuring she is paying it forward. As she stated previously, there were many spaces where she had to go the extra mile to be sure she was seen and heard, she makes sure she always has time to share information.

“I value my experiences, and I acknowledge that we are currently living in two pandemics, the second one being systemic racism. I bring unique experiences, and I have been able to see things differently. It makes a difference when you can speak to someone who shares similarities with you.”

To be a Brown Girl Boss means that you embody how your identity has shaped you and continues to shape who you are. When we asked Elyse what motivates her, she said that it is when she wakes up in the morning, she remembers how hard her family members worked to get her here. She says that there is a sense of responsibility,

“what I am able to represent matters to me.”

The small values mean a lot to her. When her grandmother passed away, she kept her champagne glasses, to remember and admire the life her grandma was able to build for herself.

Elyse is creating a pathway for the many Indo-Caribbean’s coming next, looking to explore education, culture, and the ability to be passionate. She is a Brown Girl Boss, who lives for meaningful experiences to help her understand what it means to be who she is.

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