When university becomes a life-changing experience

Posted on Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Portrait of Océanne Comtois

Born with albinism, a rare genetic disorder, Océanne Comtois had long dreamed of developing a cure that would make her like everyone else. 

“Albinism is a recessive genetic condition that affects the body’s melanin production,” she explains. “I have white hair, sensitive eyes and skin, and my vision is affected. All my life, I’ve been different from my friends.”

It was going to university that changed her outlook. Her desire to better understand the mysteries of the genome, paired with her scientific curiosity, motivated her to study biopharmaceutical science with an option in genomics at uOttawa.

But instead of discovering the treatment that she so wished for, she found answers — ones that would take her on a new path.

“The more I found out about genetic conditions in my studies, the more I learned about myself. As this learning went on, I began to gradually accept my condition, and today, I’m OK with myself. While before, I wanted to find a treatment, now it’s not important to me. My perspective has really changed,” she says. 

Along the way, Océanne became aware of her leadership skills, her way with people and her interest in the business world. So, she changed her focus to combine her passions, leading her to a bachelor’s in science, with major in life science and minor communication — the degree she’ll be taking away this spring. 

An equal chance to succeed

When Océanne, originally from Sudbury, moved to Ottawa to pursue her studies in French, she had to adapt to her new reality. But that wasn’t her biggest challenge. 

“Functioning independently in a world not designed for people with disabilities means having to overcome adversity,” she says. “Science is difficult to access for people with a visual impairment. I had to redouble my efforts and catch up in the evening on the day’s learning to be able to keep up the next day.”

She admits that there were many times in this endless cycle when she felt discouraged. 

“I realized that the philosophy that says you can do anything if you try hard enough wasn’t true. So I decided to go speak to my professors.” Océanne is pleased with how she was listened to and welcomed, which let her find solutions to be on an equal footing with the rest of her cohort at last. 

Her self-assertiveness inspired many around her. Océanne was the first University of Ottawa Science Students’ Association vice-president for equity. “I want to contribute to an environment where every person has an equal chance to succeed,” she says. Océanne was also involved in mentorship for women and non-binary people interested in STEM. 

The sky’s the limit

Océanne is bursting with ambition. She’d like to get workplace experience and then begin an MBA, which would allow her to aim for senior management positions. “It’s really important for me because there aren’t enough people with disabilities holding leadership roles. I want to be able to represent my community.” 

During her time at university, she was able to develop the self-confidence she needed to be comfortable with herself, express herself and advocate for her interests. She’ll therefore be celebrating some big accomplishments at convocation.

“I learned a tremendous amount academically, but my greatest learning will have been personal,” she says. “I’m proud of the path I’ve travelled and the person I am today!”

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