Two Algoma University students with very similar tragic stories helped each other make it through their graduation ceremony on Saturday.
Brittney Drouin and Erica Kennis first met six years ago as classmates in the Child and Youth Worker Program at Sault College.
After three years studying together, they both transferred at the same time to Algoma University where they continued on in the Social Work program.
On Saturday, after six years in the same programs, often side-by-side, the two friends graduated cum laude with Honours Bachelor of Social Work degrees at Algoma University’s Convocation ceremony.
However, the celebration was bittersweet.
About two months ago, both of their fathers passed away on the exact same day – Drouin’s from a heart attack at 54, and Kennis’ from cardiac arrest at 53.
Kennis’ father Eric Kennis, who she was actually named after, had been suffering from health problems for some time.
In 2010 he had severe sepsis, a blood infection, that left him unconscious for three months, in a hospital for a year, and then permanently disabled and reliant on a wheelchair.
As he went through various health struggles, he was forced to miss his daughter’s high school and college graduation ceremonies, and he was really hoping to attend her university graduation on Saturday.
“He was really excited to come to this one,” she said.
On April 19, Kennis’ father collapsed on the floor and couldn’t be resuscitated after she attempted CPR.
Her father later died at the hospital.
His passing was so traumatic, Kennis had to leave her job.
A few weeks ago, however, she received a letter that her father had written with the help of a social worker in the event he died unexpectedly.
“It said all the things that he’d like me to know about my future and it said that, about my graduation, he’d be with me even if he wasn’t. He talked about things he’d like me to know about my future, things to know when I buy a house, things to know when I get married, memories of when I was little, and regrets that went on with him and his life about being disabled and how he couldn’t be there for my special moments because of that,” she said.
Kennis said she actually got into social work and wanting to help people who are disabled because of her father’s struggles being in a wheelchair.
On Saturday, her graduation cap was covered in pictures and messages in his honor.
Drouin’s father, Randy Smith, also passed away on April 19 from a heart problem while working in the backyard.
“We talked every single day. He was very proud of me, so today’s kind of hard,” said Drouin on graduation day.
Drouin said she and Kennis were shocked when they found out through Facebook posts and obituaries that their fathers had died the same day.
“I saw that she lost her dad on Facebook. It was really hard to believe. It was so weird because I knew we were graduating together and we knew each other so well, and them passing on the same day and being almost the same age. I don’t know what to think of it,” she said.
Drouin and Kennis said sharing similar experiences has helped them make it through the difficult graduation ceremony.
“It was really good having Erica here today because I thought I would just bawl my face off. It's helpful knowing that someone knows what you’re going through because not everyone does. It’s helping me be stronger seeing how strong Erica is being,” said Drouin.
Drouin and Kennis were part of 245 students from various programs that received degrees and certificates at Algoma University’s Convocation ceremony at Roberta Bondar Pavillion on Saturday.