Set on a career aimed at helping others, Stettler native Colter Long has landed a ‘Knowledge First Financial Graduate Scholarship’ which will support his grad studies at the University of B.C.
Long was selected from more than 500 applicants for his advocacy work and tremendous ability to make an impact in the community.
Having survived cancer and established himself within the LGBTQ+ community, Long, 33, is working towards his Master of Education with a specialty in Counseling and Psychology.
He has also contributed his time to advocacy work for aboriginal communities.
“I remember in high school when kids would say, ‘What do you want to be?’ I remember thinking that being a psychologist would be fun,” he explained with a laugh. “It was one of my top choices.”
But it wasn’t first on the list. After graduating from high school he relocated to Calgary and tried his hand at other programs at Mount Royal College. During this time, and once before (at 15), Long also fought leukemia and eventually underwent a full bone marrow transplant when he was 19.
Later on, he studies focused on the non-profit sector. But it still wasn’t a perfect fit.
Heading to the coast, Long would find his true calling and also learn to adjust more completely to his identity as a gay man as well. He also bypassed school for a time, opting to work as a bartender for a few years and just settle into life in Vancouver.
“During that time, I paid off my school debt but I also needed to figure out what to do with my life,” he explained. “I was happy bartending and living in Vancouver, but there was a time when I definitely needed to make that (career) choice.”
At 27, he decided to return to school and finish his degree.
“You always feel like you have time to do it, but it gets a lot harder the older you get,” he explained.
It also wasn’t easy, considering the financial impact he knew it would have. But he set his sights firmly on the future and took the step.
“I put all of the resources I had into finishing the bachelor’s degree, and then I was fortunate to get a job right after,” he said. “But you are still paying off student loans from the first go-around, and then taking another leap of faith working on a master’s degree. There is, however, more of a guaranteed career at the end of it, and that’s where this scholarship really helps.”
Learning about professional counselling fit with his personality – even during his bartending stint, Long volunteered at the crisis hotline, and found it to be particularly fulfilling.
“I really made it a priority – sometimes I would work six nights a week at the bar and then on my night off, I’d do an overnight shift (at the crisis line). I didn’t know where exactly it would go, but it was important to me.”
Eventually, Long was hired on as a staff member.
“Once I knew I had done well enough to be a staff person there, I felt like my path towards grad school was pretty clear because the volunteer experience that you get on the suicide hotline is something they really look for in counselling and psychology (programs).
“I knew I had the experience side of it, so if I could just get my grades to match the level at UBC that I needed to get in, I should be set. And that’s what happened.”
He begins his master’s studies this fall.
These past couple of years, he’s been working as a projects officer for opioid response at the Metro Vancouver Aboriginal Executive Council. “I’ve been gathering community knowledge by working with other Indigenous non-profits in Vancouver, and interviewing people who have had experiences with using substances and overdose. The overdose crisis in Vancouver was declared a health crisis in 2016, and over 4,000 people have died since then.”
In terms of LGBTQ+ work, Long also volunteers with the Health Initiative for Men, which is a gay men’s health clinic.
“They do HIV testing and they also offer other services like counselling and life coaching,” he said. “I’ve taken some training on life coaching, so I see clients on a weekly basis and help work through stuff for them. We can talk about issues that we understand with them – what it’s like to navigate life as a gay man.
”I struggled a lot growing up with my sexuality. I struggled in school. I couldn’t figure life out the way that I wanted to. And then when I moved to the city to find myself, I was mostly on my own and just had to really figure stuff out,” he said.
“It’s really tough – it’s a really difficult thing to do. So through the work I do know, and the work I do with indigenous issues, I identify with people who might be moving from a rural place or a small community to a city, and (I understand) the challenges people have to go through when you feel really naive and you are trying to navigate these things.”
And this is precisely where he finds fulfillment. Each step of the way, Long has had his sites set on lending a helping hand. Past experience has shown him how much it can make a difference, and he wants to help others find their way as well.
“I think that when I’m working with people, I really identify with those feelings of being lost,” he explained. “There were times in my life when a little bit of support went a long ways.”