‘Becoming a mom made me a better student’

Katelyn Knott and her three-year-old daughter, Iris, share a smile on McMaster University campus ahead of Katelyn's graduation with an Honours degree in anthropology and Indigenous Studies.

Katelyn Knott says having a baby in her third year made her focus and work harder on her degree. Two-year-old Iris will watch her mother graduate June 13 with an Honours degree in anthropology and Indigenous Studies. /Katelyn Knott photo

Katelyn Knott is the first person in her family to graduate from university. And she might not have been as successful if she hadn’t had a baby in her third year.

Wait, what?

“She really gave me purpose,” Knott says about her daughter, Iris. “Of course it was hard. But I have someone watching me all the time, absorbing and learning from everything I do. I couldn’t give up. I had to focus, I had to get really good at managing my time.

“I had to do it right.”

Knott, who is from Curve Lake First Nation, graduates June 13 with an Honours degree in anthropology and Indigenous studies.

She started her BA at McMaster in the Faculty of Humanities in 2013. She took a tour with Indigenous studies at the time. “I just wanted to learn my way around,” she says, “but I found friendships and a safe space to decompress.”

The next year, she switched to anthropology and Indigenous studies. A few months later, near the end of second year, she learned she was pregnant, due in November. She continued with summer classes, and came back in the fall for the 2015-16 school year.

“I knew if I stopped, there’d be too many reasons not to come back,” Knott says about her decision to stay in school with a baby on the way. “I just buckled through.”

That fall, Knott started an independent study with Dr. Rick Monture in the Indigenous Studies program. “He really helped me and allowed me to do what I needed to do,” Knott says.

She did her research in the fall term — with a break when Iris was born — and started writing in the winter term, when the baby was three months old. She kept working at it through the summer, and her mom and sister cared for Iris while she studied.

In 2016, when Iris was 10 months old, Knott came back to school full-time. “It was intimidating, but my family pushed me,” she says. “And I love school.”

At times, when Knott’s determination would falter, she drew strength from her family. “‘Don’t worry, we’ll make it happen,’ they told me. When I needed care for my baby, my mom was always there,” she says.

“My sisters are the best cheerleaders. My partner took on so much, and my mom’s best friend supports me like I’m her own kid.”

While at McMaster, Knott conducted workshops on making ribbon skirts, traditionally worn for significant occasions. For graduation, she will wear a ribbon skirt specially made by her mother.

“We were at a family party on the weekend and she made me talk to everyone and tell them I’m graduating,” Knott says with a smile. “She’s pretty excited to put it in the Curve Lake First Nation community newsletter.”

The newsletter will be pretty full: In her time at here, Knott helped organize events for ceremonies every year on Dec. 6, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. She volunteered with Welcome Week, served as vice-president of the Co-operative of Indigenous Studies Students & Alumni, worked as a project co-ordinator for the Office of Equity and Inclusion, served as interim administrator of the Hamilton Executive Directors’ Aboriginal Coalition, and developed a university smudging protocol. She also was a teaching assistant for a course that had more than 100 students in it.

“There were a lot of early mornings and late, late nights,” she says. “But it was worth it. I’m not afraid to ask for support when I need it, and people in the Indigenous Studies program became like a family to me.”

In her final year, Knott took a seminar on Indigenous women with newly minted PhD Kaitlin Debicki. “That course brought everything full circle for me,” she says. “After five years of learning how to research and cite published sources, I really recognized the value of my own voice — and my mother’s, and my aunts’ voices — as a source of knowledge.”

For her final project, Knott made a slide show of women in her family, with her voice playing over the images. “I’m reading a letter giving thanks for what they’ve given me — from my grandmother to my daughter.”

After she walks across the stage on June 13, Knott will return to McMaster this fall, to go to graduate school — another first for her, and her family.

“I have 12 nieces and nephews who look up to me,” Knott says, and a 13th is on the way. “I want to show them you can do it regardless of your situation.”

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