Penny Smoke planned to be a social worker and pursue becoming an artist. Then, she met Shannon Avison, director of the Indian Communication Arts (INCA) program at the First Nations University of Canada.
“Shannon was definitely instrumental in me being able to finish school, she totally swept me right off my feet,” says Penny.
She enrolled in INCA and took the Summer Journalism Institute.
“It is a great program and the place to be as a starting point if one wants to become an aspiring Indigenous journalist,” says Penny. “It definitely gave me the identity knowing that I loved writing and telling stories.”
She completed the INCA program in 2012 and received her certificate the same year. She went on to get a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Regina in 2014.
Upon graduation, she focused on being a parent since her son was only three months old when she returned to school. At the time, Penny was on her own with little support from her family, a single parent living just below the poverty line.
During difficult times, she would get motivational talks from Shannon. She recalls being encouraged to “come back and finish school,” and “you got this, yes you can do it!”
Affected by experiences at residential school, as well as drug and alcohol addictions, she appreciated the help of people like Shannon. Penny felt she wasn’t just a number at FNUniv.
“There are so many support systems and supportive people. You are part of a team, a family,” says Penny.
The sense of belonging led her to volunteer at cultural events, where she was able to interview people, shoot videos, and take pictures.
“These were the highlights of my academic career,” she said.
Today, she works as an assistant teacher with Saskatoon public schools to be close to her son.
However, she is still finding new ways to tell stories. Currently, she is working on a non-fiction story for young adults.
“I remember reading some pretty powerful books in grade seven and eight,” says Penny. “They gave me a really different perspective on life.”