As a former gang member, Jordan Buna had seen a lot and been through more than the average post-secondary student when he arrived at Kwantlen Polytechnic University – but the academic world held new challenges.
“I remember when I first started going here, I would walk by the psychology lab but I was too intimated to go in because I never thought I was smart enough to go here.”
The 35-year-old has overcome those challenges to cross the stage at convocation this week and land himself a job helping to keep young people away from gangs.
Life changed for Buna, who had started school by taking two classes a semester while going to work full-time, when he heard about the Acting Together research project run by KPU psychology instructor Dr. Gira Bhatt. The project, which aims to reduce youth gang involvement, introduced Buna to Sergeant Lindsey Houghton, who would go on to become one of the mentors in Buna’s life. It would also help him get the job he has now – working with the Surrey School District in a program called Wraparound.
“If I didn’t go to Kwantlen and I didn’t work on the research project at Kwantlen and I didn’t meet Lindsey Houghton and didn’t create that presentation there’s a 100 per cent chance that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
Buna first came to KPU out of high school. He dropped out soon after and his life took a dark turn when he got involved in gangs.
“I spent about a year in jail for firearms possession and things related to the gang. I was 24 when I was released from jail so that was 10 years ago. So, kind of slowly, I started rebuilding my life, got a trades job.”
He was working as a heavy-duty mechanic when he decided to go back to school. He was 26 years old when he walked into the academic advisor’s office on crutches.
“I broke my ankle so I was off for eight weeks. I remember it always bugged me that I thought I was too dumb to do it – all the things that convinced me that I wasn’t fit to be successful.”
The other mentor Buna found at KPU was one he had known from early on in his gang career, when Buna would frequent the clubs and bars in Downtown Vancouver: KPU criminology instructor and current police officer with the Vancouver Police Gang Crime Unit, Keiron McConnell.
“Keiron used to be one of the nice police officers who would ask me to pack up my stuff and get out,” he recalls, “So I knew him from the enforcement side of things and then when I came back and finding out he is a prof here and I remember he saw me and looked at me and I told him what I was doing with the Acting Together stuff and he’s been another massive supporter of mine.”
“He was someone I exercised extreme caution around as a police officer. I now consider him a personal friend,” says McConnell.
Buna now comes to McConnell’s classes to give talks about his lived experience to students. He says McConnell is someone he looks up to, a big influence and mentor in his life who he now works with professionally.
“When I found out I was graduating, I remember so many times him pulling me out of a bar and I just thought it was such a good thing for me because I know as a police officer he sees the worst of the worst and he probably sees people who don’t change, but it was important for me to have him on stage when I got that degree.”
And McConnell was there on stage at convocation.
“This is one of the proudest moments of my 30-year policing career and 15-year teaching career,” says McConnell. “It’s a pleasure to teach at KPU where we have the ability to know our students and to help them. I am proud of Jordan, who really is an inspiration to all of us. He faced great adversity, but made the right choices and now is a success story.”
Buna says although his parents were always involved in his life, he looked elsewhere as a teenager for mentorship.
“That was one of the biggest problems for me and why I went so far off track after 18 because I graduated from high school and I lost a lot of the older mentors in my life and it’s really difficult for kids or anybody to go through life without somebody to look up to and for somebody to hold you accountable.”
He is getting ready to go back to school for a master’s degree in counselling psychology in hopes of one day becoming a clinical counsellor. He reflects back to his life philosophy and adds some advice for future students.
“The only thing that’s more valuable than what’s in the books here is the wisdom that people have.”
Buna says the connections he’s made at KPU is what made his experience memorable as he found people to look up to and learned to persevere. It wasn’t always like that for him before KPU.
“I’m lucky, I had some really bad ones [mentors] but I managed to also get some really good ones too.”
Story by Sucheta Singh