Principal Karen Jurjevich Murton and Ashley CALDWELL'01
Installation is one of Branksome’s oldest and most cherished traditions for employees and students alike. In the spirit of celebrating student leadership, students in Grades 6 to 12 gathered at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church to welcome our new Prefects, Clan Reps, Honour Guards, and the Heads of Branksome’s numerous clubs. The event is also the first time the Grade 12 Prefects sport their new red uniforms.
This year, Head Girl Sonali Amarasekera gave a moving speech about building confidence and finding your own voice.
Keynote speaker Ashley CALDWELL’01 told about her own remarkable journey that started long before she entered Branksome’s Junior School, and that continues until the present day.
Although she suffered a spinal cord injury at age three, Ashley did not let it hold her back. After enrolling in Branksome in Grade 6, she held a number of leadership positions, including Captain of the Rowing Team. In her Grade 12 year, she was elected Head Girl and helped to create the 2001 Prefect’s Motto, “Aim high, take risks, leave a legacy.”
Now, 11 years later, Ashley’s journey takes her back to Branksome, as she was recently elected to the school’s Board of Governors.
Ashley told the audience that when she was asked to speak at this year’s Installation ceremony, she struggled to say “yes,” not because she wasn’t proud of what she had accomplished since graduation, but because she was unconvinced she was the right one for the job.
“Three or four weeks ago, something amazing happened,” she said. “I heard this year’s Prefect’s Motto —‘Dare to Detour’—and a light went off. I knew I should speak today.”
Ashley told of how she went on to graduate from Branksome with honours and enrolled at Queen’s University. She joined the varsity rowing team, competing internationally, and got involved in numerous clubs. What happened next was life changing; Ashley was faced with a major decision — to undergo a series of reconstructive surgeries to correct damage from her spinal cord injury or risk being wheelchair bound by age 40. She spoke with specialists and decided to go ahead with it. Six surgeries later, she had to restart university and eventually graduated in 2008—seven years after finishing at Branksome.
“Now there’s a detour!” she said with a laugh. “But you shouldn’t get the wrong idea. I didn’t tell you this story for sympathy or as an anecdote of triumph. Instead, I wanted you to truly grasp the opportunities that can come out of a major detour.”
Fortunately, Ashley found that the surgeries became a catalyst for a career in business and encouraged her to get involved in provincial healthcare advocacy. Ashley works with non-profit organizations that help people with Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis to lobby the government.
“Branksome encouraged me to not only help but to lead. I made it my mission to do that,” she said.
Her surgeries also acted as a detour that helped her to obtain a job at IBM. She started as a receptionist and worked her way up in the company, now working as a Software Sales Leader.
“I did exactly what Branksome had taught me and I know has taught you,” she said. “I worked very hard and I made myself relevant by putting up my hand for more responsibility and pushing people to hear my opinions.”
She also just completed her Executive MBA, holding the title as the youngest female in the history of the Kellogg-Schulich school to do so.
“Branksome arms you with the skills, experience and global-mindedness you’ll need to succeed,” she said.
“Before you put that stake in the ground, before you define who you are, I challenge you to question and to risk. Take the journey by trying new things and meeting new people, and detouring until sometimes you can’t recognize your former self. That is where the true opportunity lies in life, and I hope you’re all lucky enough to experience it like I have.”