Wed | Dec 6, 2023

Odelia Duffus makes history at Canadian university

Published:Wednesday | March 23, 2022 | 12:05 AMJanet Silvera/Senior Gleaner Writer


Headed towards a very dark path in her Christian life, combined with C grades in her first term, Odelia Duffus pivoted and will make history as the first black female valedictorian at a predominantly white university in Canada.

The 22-year-old Jamaican applied herself within months of arriving in Winnipeg, Manitoba, becoming the senior international student assistant, student council member, taking her Christian journey to higher levels in singing and worship at the faith-based Canadian Mennonite University.

A Baptist institution which does not exclude other denominations, Duffus, who cried for months because of the stinging Canadian cold and homesickness, said she pulled her socks up, did extra work, and stayed up late working papers until her grades started to improve.

The former Montego Bay High School for Girls graduate, who was a deputy head girl, will address some 400 other students in her 2022 cohort at the graduation ceremony on April 30. She will hold a bachelor of arts in peace conflict transformation, which is closely related to law. She majored in peace, conflict and trust relationship studies.

A believer in second chances and mediation, instead of the courtroom, Duffus said she opted for the programme because of the idea of restorative justice, compared to retributive justice.

“Because with law, everything [is] kind of a court rule. The offender is punished and goes to jail, and not much attention is placed on either the offender or the victim,” she argues.


With mediation, the offender is given a chance to speak and a chance to reintegrate into society. Court diversion programmes, where offender may not even go to prison is also a feature of mediation, “And that means us giving the person a better chance, and even having the chance for the offender to mend relationships ... I just ... prefer that method to justice, compared to the courtroom,” she told The Gleaner.

Duffus did one year of pre-law at The University of the West Indies, before getting the opportunity to apply to the Canadian Mennonite University, where, she said, she had no scholarship but plenty faith.

With 80 per cent of the student population being Caucasian, 10 per cent looking like her, and the other 10 per cent a mix of various ethnicities, Duffus said the only other black person to make their way on to the valedictorian podium was a young African graduate.

Duffus credits her leadership abilities while juggling the workload for the tremendous feat she has achieved, coupled with her trust in God.

She, at one stage started to question her Saviour, asking Him if he had sent her so far to fail. “Honestly, I cried for a while ... and said, ‘God you brought me this close, you can’t bring me here to give me bad grades. I can’t fail because I will have to leave the country.’”

Duffus said she started spending more time doing schoolwork, owing to the fact that she arrived in Canada with the wrong attitude.

“I came here thinking, oh, I used to get the good grades in Jamaica. Oh, I don’t need to do too much. I don’t need to study much, or whatever. But it’s not the case here. The coursework is different; it’s very heavy, a lot of writing, so I had to buckle down,” she admitted.

It was one of her professors who inspired her to do really well by complimenting her writing skills, “which she said was better than that of the Canadian students,” said Duffus.

Her vocabulary at the time was not vast either, she confessed, but she was motivated to broaden her horizon through reading and more research.

The St Andrew-born valedictorian doesn’t want to be stereotyped as just a black female, because throughout her stay in Canada, she says she has sometimes been placed in a box based on her culture or background.


“I’ve always been asked to speak on behalf of Jamaicans, speak on behalf of black women, and my academic integrity or identity is much more than that; so I’ve been reduced to that a lot. So I’m going to take this opportunity to show people, or prove to people, that I am much more than just a black female.”

Extremely excited about the next chapter in her life, Duffus says she will take a year off and work, then go to law school.

In the meantime, she is helping Canadian Mennonite University to recruit Jamaican students, some from her alma mater, because they want the diversity and are pleased with her achievements.