Harrison Oakes (MA ’16, PhD ’20) found his purpose in a social psychology course that gave him language to understand his experiences of mental illness, attempted suicide and the bullying he endured for being gay.
Once Oakes had the language, he committed to using his talents to empower others. “I’ve always had a really strong desire to help other people and to do something that really matters so I’ve taken my own experiences of suffering and trauma and tried to make something positive out of them,” says Oakes, a recent recipient of the Governor General’s Gold Medal, one of Canada’s highest academic honours. “I’ve tried to put them to work – to prevent other people from experiencing the same things.”
Oakes’ doctoral research shows how homophobic environments harm all students, not just those who identify as LGBTQ+. His work has enriched psychological theory while also making an impact on the lives of high school students.
Oakes’ doctoral research was inspired by an experience he had while still an undergraduate student. He sat in on hearings for Bill 18, Manitoba’s proposed anti-bullying legislation. While listening to community members’ arguments, he noticed many detractors couldn’t see how protecting LGBTQ+ students would benefit their straight children.
To promote awareness of the bill’s necessity, Oakes publicly shared his own story about the difficulty of growing up gay and being bullied for it in high school. He discussed living through depression and a suicide attempt at 15 before dropping out of high school for a year-and-a-half. His story attracted support from people across Canada. Later that year, in partnership with PREVNet and Family Channel, Oakes authored a teachers’ guide on creating anti-bullying environments. It was disseminated to schools across Canada.
Instead of living from a to-do list, take some time to step away from that list and ask yourself: ‘Why am I here? Why am I doing what I’m doing? Is this the life I want to live?
Today, Oakes is considering developing another resource, this time for religious parents who are struggling with understanding their children who identify as LGBTQ+. “A lot of resources for religious parents are outdated and they paint queer life with a doom-and-gloom narrative heavily influenced by the AIDS epidemic,” says Oakes. “We need resources that reflect today’s realities for LGBTQ+ folks, and that provide both parents and children with hope.”
Oakes, who hopes to become a professor, says he draws inspiration from his late brother, Steve Wall, who died in a plane crash last year leaving behind a young family and vocation as a Christian minister. Oakes says his brother always challenged people to ask the big existential questions: "Instead of living from a to-do list, take some time to step away from that list and ask yourself: ‘Why am I here? Why am I doing what I’m doing? Is this the life I want to live?"
Future-Ready Talent Framework
Harrison Oakes had never heard of social psychology but a second-year course at Waterloo transformed his career and opened the door to pursuing social justice research.