A cancer survivor, U of T grad Malia Robinson strives to support others on their healing journeys


Malia Robinson came to U of T as a mature student via the Transitional Year Programme (supplied image)

Malia Robinson had to overcome an array of challenges to become a University of Toronto graduate. Arriving as a mature student amid a period of uncertainty and self-doubt, Robinson went on to complete an honours bachelor of arts degree in women and gender studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science, with minors in Buddhism, psychology and mental health, and contemporary Asian studies. 

Along the way, she traveled to Central America for an experiential learning opportunity that altered the trajectory of her studies, volunteered at Women's College Hospital – having previously undergone surgery to treat cancer there – and won Woodsworth College's prestigious Brookfield Bronfman Gold Scholarship

Now starting graduate studies in U of T's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, Robinson recently spoke about her journey. 

You came to U of T through the Transitional Year Programme as a mature student – what made you want to study here?

I learned about U of T’s Transitional Year Programme at a difficult point in my life where I felt like I had hit rock-bottom and had zero prospects for the future. Seeing post-secondary as an opportunity to start over and build a brighter future, I swallowed my fear and made the decision to apply. Looking back, I can honestly say it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Why did you choose women and gender studies?

I wanted to learn as much as I could about the histories, systems and policies that contributed to the pain and dysfunction I was seeing in the world.

As I studied about the social determinants of health, gendered biases in medicine, colonialism in the Canadian context, systemic violence, and the social, cultural, physiological and mental impacts of intergenerational trauma, I felt overwhelmed by the depth of suffering in the world and was compelled to use my lived experiences and education to alleviate that suffering in some way.

I also realized that I needed to broaden my understanding of the world to be able to meet people where they are at. To do so, I enrolled in contemporary Asian studies and took courses in Latin American studies, which helped me understand colonialism and neoliberalism in different regional contexts. This introduced me to the different ways diverse cultures have reclaimed their languages and spaces, and decolonized their food systems, educational systems and healing practices.

In turn, these courses compelled me to deepen my understanding of healing trauma on an individual and societal level. To facilitate this, I enrolled in Buddhism, psychology & mental health, which gave me the skills needed to care for my own embodied trauma and inspired me to train in somatic therapies.

What personal challenges have you overcome during your studies?

The biggest challenge I faced was my limiting beliefs about what I was capable of achieving. With the immense support I received from the Transitional Year Programme, Woodsworth College, Accessibility Services, First Nations House, my professors, peers and partner, I was able to step outside of my comfort zone, make mistakes, learn from my failures and challenge myself in new and exciting ways.

Looking back, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow. And I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to make my Uncle Yogi proud and honour my Métis roots.

How did your studies take you to Central America?

In the summer of 2019, I participated in an experiential learning opportunity via the Dean's International & Indigenous Initiatives Fund, where I studied issues pertaining to Indigeneity and food sovereignty in Belize. This experience was one of the highlights of my undergraduate experience and was so impactful it changed the trajectory of my studies.

During this trip, I was inspired by the painstaking work that Indigenous Belizians undertook to revitalize the physical, emotional and generational health of their communities, and I came to the realization that I wanted to spend my life working in a similar capacity.

I really appreciated the guided tour of a local farm and getting the chance to learn about Mayan land rights, food systems and development initiatives. I believe that food is a powerful medicine and remember feeling inspired and humbled by the efforts locals undertook to protect their lands and traditional crops, and transmit their knowledge to the younger generations.

How did you become connected with Women’s College Hospital?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I underwent surgery at Women’s College Hospital to stop cervical cancer in its tracks. When I was in recovery, I was looking for a virtual opportunity to support folks during the crisis when I stumbled across New College’s Community Engaged Learning Program, which was looking for volunteers to help the Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health draft a proposal to build a medicine garden at Women’s College Hospital.

At the time, I was struggling with the existential crisis that comes with anything cancer-related and felt like this was an incredible opportunity to channel my energy into building something meaningful that would support others who are at different stages of their healing journeys. I learned a lot during my placement and was excited to see the efforts of everyone involved give rise to a rooftop garden which officially opened this summer.

You started a master of social work at U of T – what would you like to do in the future?

Once I’m qualified to offer counseling and work with trauma, I want to help people resolve their complex trauma issues and reconnect to their body’s inherent capacity for restorative sleep, health and wellness.

Given my incredibly positive personal experiences with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), I wholeheartedly believe that somatic therapies – therapy that aims to treat PTSD and other mental and emotional health issues through the connection of mind and body – are the future of trauma therapy.

Because these therapies are still prohibitively expensive, I strive to provide accessible and affordable therapy to the people who need it most – and want to dedicate my life to supporting people on their healing journeys.

Arts & Science