June 19, 2020

Class of 2020: Cohort’s support in the face of tragedy ‘the epitome of social work’

Savana Roy’s Bachelor of Social Work classmates helped her overcome multiple tragedies to reach graduation

“How much can they take?” When we talk about profound grief and loss, people often use language that expresses an implied limit on how much pain people can withstand before breaking. While grief and loss can test those limits, how they come through depends on their determination to persevere, and, if they’re lucky, the help they receive along the way.

Bachelor of Social Work graduand Savana Roy had wanted to be a social worker “for a long time.” It became her number one goal after she realized her childhood dream to become a police officer didn’t resonate any more. She took some courses at the University of Calgary that focused on Indigenous culture as part of the Indigenous Student Access Program and through that process became aware, as she puts it, that “social work was the place that I wanted to be. I was really excited. I felt purposeful it was where I was supposed to be.”

When she applied, she drew on the lived experience of her partner, Corbin, with a powerful essay on addictions. She was thrilled when she received an offer of admission to begin her Bachelor of Social Work in September 2018. “I was happy in my own personal life. Corbin and I were together for almost two years at that point.”

  • Photo, above: Savana Roy credits the help of her classmates with the fact she made it through her studies despite numerous setbacks and tragedies. They credit her strength and resilience.

‘He was my biggest fan’

As she describes it, Corbin, who had previously struggled with fentanyl addiction, was one of her life anchors. “He was my biggest fan. Every day he would say, ‘I am in awe of you. You are amazing. I could never do what you do. I don’t always understand your papers, but I always listen. You just amaze me.’ He was one of my biggest support systems.”

Corbin had been clean for three years and his life also seemed to on track, until Nov. 27, 2018.

“I felt that day … I felt like something was wrong,” she says. “I had woken up a little bit late and had to be downtown for a group class presentation at the Kerby Center. Corbin woke up early, made me breakfast, and wrote me a note that said, ‘I love you and have a great day!’ and put it in my lunch.”

At about 11 a.m., she sent him a text and he didn’t respond, which was uncharacteristic. She checked her sharing app and saw that he was still at home, even though she knew he was supposed to be at work. “My stomach just was in knots. I just physically knew something was wrong. So, I left the presentation and went home and that's when I found him in our apartment, and he was gone.”

It’s a familiar but tragic story with addiction. He had gotten back in with the wrong friend, and in the deadly calculus of opioid addiction, less than three weeks later he was gone.

Loss of cousin and grandfather

While she was still reeling from Corbin’s loss, she suffered two more shocking losses. In December of that year, she lost her cousin — the mother of a one-year-old child. Shortly after that, she lost her grandfather, who she describes as her dad. “He raised me from two years up,” she reflects. “He did have a peaceful passing and it was his time to go. But he was my rock. I love that man. It was really hard, losing him as well. And it just seemed it was like a really bad joke.”

At this point, you might understand if Roy had decided to give up, or at least postpone her education.

Instead she become even more determined to press on. Her grandfather was the first person in her family to graduate high school and go to college. “I knew,” she says, “how proud he was of me.”

She also drew on Corbin for strength. “It was super difficult. I wanted to give up. I just wanted to crawl under a rock and die myself. It was excruciating. But I knew Corbin was so proud of me for where I was, how I got into social work, and how well I was doing. I could hear his voice. He would be so mad at me if I quit now.”

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The classmates of Savana Roy started a GoFundMe that allowed her to stay in her apartment for an extra month.

So she persevered, leaning on her friends, family and an incredibly supportive cohort. Even though it was just months into the program, many classmates showed up at the funeral service to show their support, which Roy says was a really key moment.

"I don’t remember a lot about that day. It was just a lot of emotion, a lot going on, but I know they showed up and that was amazing."

Accident results in brain injury

As the semester came to a close, Roy prepared to take classes in spring and summer 2019 while attending to the depressing task of packing up her grandfather’s possessions and selling his house. While taking her dog for a walk to a park near her house, she was hit by a truck.

I just remember looking at my hand and it was covered in blood. I remember them saying, ‘We’re going to Foothills,’ but I couldn’t remember where Foothills was. I couldn’t situate where that was in the city. Even though I could tell them where I was. I had no idea what that meant.

Roy suffered a traumatic right-brain injury and severe road rash along one side of her body. She was so sore, she couldn’t even wear clothes and her left leg became very swollen. “Nothing was broken,” she recalls, “but I was very bruised. I couldn’t walk or drive for three months.”

The painful, physical injuries slowly healed, but the brain injury was a different matter. It left her with constant headaches and the sensation that she was now somehow different than she was before — as she describes it, like she’d “lost a piece of herself.”

It robbed her of memories — including the names of people she’d known her whole life — and impaired her ability to regulate her emotions. She would lash out at her family, without knowing why she was doing it. But she was determined to get back to school, and she managed to get back for the start of the fall 2019 semester.

Supportive cohort makes the difference

Unbelievably, she was rear-ended by a texting driver in November of that year, just as she returned to class, which aggravated her symptoms. She kept going. The brain injury made school more difficult and she says she forgot a lot of things in her first few months back.

However, her supportive cohort was, once again, there to support her. They were patient when she didn’t show up for meetings that she’d arranged, and helpful in trying to keep her on track with assignment due dates and tests. Her daytimer became a lifesaver and she learned to write everything down.

One reading, one class, and one paper at a time, she got through it. But it was never a smooth ride.

“I remember once I was just really haunted. I had cried in the shower for hours and I just couldn’t get myself out of this funk. Then one of my friends, Dana, called me. She’s also in social work and she said, ‘Let’s go for coffee tomorrow,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’

'There were always moments when I was in these really low places, and somebody would just give me a hug. I’d be walking to class and one of my social work friends would give me a hug. It would just heal me a little bit each time. I think this was the biggest thing: people never stopped inviting me. If I didn’t have the cohort I did, I really don’t think I would’ve made it. I really had to lean on everyone, even if it was a small thing.”

And her classmates helped with many small and big things. They walked her dog while she was recovering. They brought her food after the accident. After Corbin died, they started a GoFundMe that allowed her to stay in her apartment for an extra month. They raised $500 to pay for her dog’s vet bill. They brought her food and made her lunches.

It was really just amazing. It was the epitome of social work. Thinking back on it, it was beautiful. Every single person, in their own way, helped me to get by.

Strength and resilience

One of those who Roy mentions often helped to keep her on track with imminent deadlines was classmate Amanda Ho. “It’s very ‘on-brand’ for Savana to say that her cohort was a big reason for her success when it was really 99 per cent because of her strength and resilience,” begins Ho. “She and I met when we were part of a school project and we just hit it off. I think she gives off a ‘big sister vibe’ and she always looked out for me and our other classmates.

"When her boyfriend passed away, the news travelled fast in our relatively small cohort. Lots of us reached out to her and a small group attended her boyfriend's memorial. After that, she faced a lot more hardships and our cohort did our best to support her.”

The other bittersweet reality is that her painful experiences have provided Roy a depth of understanding and experience that should help her really make a difference as a social worker. For example, during her field education placement, in the winter 2020 semester at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, she was able to help the parents of a child with brain injury to understand why their child was lashing out at them. She explained that sometimes the anger and frustration that comes with a brain injury causes you to, ironically, express it to those you love and trust the most.

Sharing lived experience

She’s also been there to support friends and others who have lost loved ones to an overdose and shared her lived experience with her classmates.

Of course, Roy’s final hurdle came when the global pandemic hit in the spring. She’ll have to wait until November to walk the stage of the Jack Simpson Gym with her classmates, but after what she’s been through, you can be sure she’ll be there. Without her cohort, she couldn’t have made it to the finish line, and it steeled her resolve to graduate and celebrate with those who helped make it possible.

Convocation 2020 will be more than a social media milestone for Savana Roy. It’s a testament to her strength to persevere, and a statement about what the love and support of classmates can accomplish.