Embrace the Challenge: Meet Allison Martell

Allison Martell’s CBU story has spanned three decades. As she puts it, it’s older than the campus residence buildings! But if there’s one thing her story proves, it’s that there is no universal path to education, and no matter where your journey takes you it’s never too late to achieve your goals. 

In 1989 Allison enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies Program at the University College of Cape Breton. She had moved to Sydney from nearby St. Peter’s and was ready to take on the world with her best friend. Looking back, Allison says she can see just how young she was at 18. 

In second year when Allison’s friend decided not to return to school, she says she was scared at the thought of being in Sydney without him. “I registered for my courses but I began to struggle academically and emotionally, barely making it through my second year,” she explains. “I returned for my third year but found myself on academic probation.” 

When her grandmother became sick that same year, Allison says she was shaken to the core. “If I could go back and speak to my 20-year-old self I would say it’s okay to take a break, regroup and come back when you’re ready,” she says. “Instead, I struggled alone in silence, scared to tell my parents I was failing.” 

Allison says she thought things would turn around, but found herself struggling even more and unable to pass her degree. “At 20 years old I flunked out of university. I felt like a huge failure and disappointment to everyone because I had let it slip through my hands,” she explains. “I was truly ashamed of myself and I carried that sense of failure with me for a long time.” 

Shifting gears, Allison earned her Secretarial Diploma at Cape Breton Business College and became pregnant with her first son, deciding she would return to university after family priorities had been taken care of. “I put my education on the back burner but never really forgot about it,” she says. “It never seemed like the right time, but it was always in the back of my mind.” 

In 1996, while completing a work placement with Children’s Aid and taking officer qualification courses with the Canadian Armed Forces, Allison felt ready to slowly ease back into university life. Putting her fear aside, she completed two full time courses, proving that despite the hurdles she had experienced, she was still very capable of earning her degree. 

After that, life took Allison on a journey of marriage, purchasing her first home with her husband, a second child and many more adventures. Yet again, education felt like something that could take a back seat despite how often Allison told herself she’d come back to that degree someday. “It seemed selfish to consider going back to school while my husband was working shift work and I had other commitments,” she says. “So I boxed that idea up and put it back on the shelf.” 

Five years passed, then ten and fifteen as Allison watched her sons grow up and begin to think about their own educational journeys. In 2014 she gave birth to a daughter as she watched her second son start to struggle in his second year of university. Suddenly all of the familiar feelings came crashing back. “The difference between my son and myself was that he was brave enough to tell us he was struggling from the start,” Allison explains. “I never wanted him to feel like he was a failure to us.” 

Allison says ultimately her son’s choice to take a break from university was the catalyst for her return to academics. She wanted to show him the door wouldn’t close just because he took a break. She quietly picked up her laptop, submitting an application to CBU without telling anyone. In 2019 she received an acceptance letter and nervously told her family she would be returning to school through online learning. Thankfully they were all very supportive of her plans. After finding out she only needed 4.5 credits to earn a Bachelor of Arts, Amy began her final journey at CBU as her little girl started primary school. 

Throughout the year, Allison worked through her courses, earning high 80s and feeling her confidence return. This summer she realized the end was within her grasp and added an item to her bucket list: graduating at age 50. This time next year she intends to graduate, putting the final touches on a story filled with twists and turns. “It has been daunting some days, being in class with people younger than my kids,” she admits. “But the rewards far outweigh the stress.”

As hard as it was to face those twists and turns, Allison says she wouldn’t alter her life’s path for anything. “Sometimes life intervenes and throws you a curveball,” she says. “My life has given me an incredible husband and three amazing children who make me proud every day. Academic learning is wonderful, but what we learn from life is what helps us face the true tests.” 

She wants young students who may be questioning their path to know that it’s okay to take a break. And for mature students considering the return to school, Allison says go for it. “Embrace the challenge,” she says. “Believe me, if you can balance relationships, kids and work, you can manage the stress of school.”

We are so grateful to have played a role in Allison’s journey, both in 1989 and today as she prepares for her final year of studies. Thank you for showing our students that their way is the right way, and doors never close on dreams.