Carisse Samuel

‘It’s going to be special’: UTM alumna returns for in-person graduation celebrations

Sharon Aschaiek

Members of U of T Mississauga’s classes of 2020 and 2021 are reuniting at Convocation Hall this weekend – and for Carisse Samuel, the long-anticipated, in-person graduation celebration “means everything.”

Samuel, who completed the digital enterprise management program and graduated in a virtual convocation in 2020, missed the joy of marking this major life milestone in-person with her school peers, family and friends due to the pandemic. But as she proudly crosses the stage tomorrow, she says she will be feting not only an academic accomplishment, but overcoming a life-threatening illness that almost scuttled her education.

Carisse Samuel
(Photo supplied by Carisse Samuel)

“This means everything, because of what I went through to get my degree, from being sick and then coming back to school. It kind of left a little hole in me, not being able to celebrate with my family and friends, so it’s going to be special,” Samuel says.

In her second year at UTM, Samuel suddenly contracted anti-NMDAR encephalitis, an autoimmune disease that causes brain dysfunction. Known colloquially as “brain on fire,” the condition put her in a coma for five months. Afterwards, she underwent intensive rehabilitation to relearn how to speak, eat, walk, socialize and manage her emotions. She also had to have surgery to remove her ovaries.

Samuel’s path to recovery was eased by her participation in a support group for individuals with acquired brain injuries, where she learned the craft of creative writing and began expressing her feelings about her illness in poetry. Finding solace in writing, she has decided to write a book about her entire medical journey. She is currently working with an editor and is aiming to publish in November 2023.

“It’s going to be a personal account from when I first started at UTM, to everything I went through and all the processing that happened to get to where I am today, and how it ultimately made me a stronger person,” she says.

Since completing her degree, Samuel has put her digital business expertise to good use, first as a content creator and account co-ordinator at a marketing agency, and since 2020 as a self-employed digital marketer. She helps non-profit organizations and purpose-driven brands with projects such as social marketing and web design.

“Working in the field put my knowledge to the test, and U of T really equipped me to handle everything that came my way,” she says.

On the side, Samuel works as a freelance photographer and, as a hobby, paints portraits. She recently took a course in cybersecurity, and became deeply interested in the systems, challenges, opportunities relating to the protection of sensitive data. That training has compelled her to build on her education by applying to U of T’s master of information degree, where she wants to specialize in knowledge management and information management.

For now, though, she’s mainly focused on finally getting to complete her convocation experience at U of T Mississauga, where two good friends will join her for the celebration.

“I’m just looking forward to catching up with everyone I haven’t seen in two years, and walking across that stage and feeling like, I did it!”