Danielle Major is one of those rare and gifted all-around students who defied the odds from an early age. She is an exceptional academic all-star athlete, and student coach. In short, she excels in, well, everything.
The sun peeks through an ever-changing Fall sky as the last of October’s leaves hold on to their branches, waiting for the next gust of wind to take flight.
While many of her University of Regina Kinesiology peers have gone home to rest and recharge for the Thanksgiving Weekend, 22-year-old Danielle Major has her hands full on her parent’s first-generation cattle farm, located just outside of St. Brieux in Central Saskatchewan. Danielle calmly reassures a nervous Black Angus calf, temporarily immobilized in a steel headgate, that the ear tagging, vaccinations, and humane castration procedure that are about to occur will be over soon.
The majestic animal seems to sense the young woman’s competence and gentle resolve, and the calf settles under Danielle’s coaxing.
“Danielle has always had an affinity for the farm and for the animals,” mom Lisa says proudly. “When she was a little girl, she’d rush home from school if we had an orphaned calf and bottle feed it until it was able to fend for itself. That’s just Danielle. Out of all of my four girls (Danielle being the youngest), she takes after her dad the most. She drives the skid steer, moves the bales, and does whatever she can to help out with the herd (numbering about 100 head of cattle and 100 calves this year).”
The annual calf roundup is a huge event on the Major farm, and it’s all-hands-on deck for Danielle and her next oldest sister Katelyn, 26, a U of R Honours History grad who works as a student recruiter. The two sisters live together in a Regina condo that once belonged to their grandmother and have driven up for the long weekend. So has their eldest sister Larissa, 32, a U of R Education grad, teacher, and former nurse, who has come from Coronach with her husband Brandon and their little boy, Bennett – the first grandchild for Charlie and Lisa Major, and the first boy in the family. The only sister missing from the family gathering is 29-year-old Ashley, a U of R Human Justice grad and international lawyer in Toronto, who was unable to get away for the weekend. While her presence is certainly missed this Thanksgiving, she is definitely there in spirit as the rest of the sisters get to work for the annual roundup. Even little Bennett gets in on the action.
While Larissa admits that her young son is doted upon by his grandparents and aunties, their dad Charlie never missed out by having four daughters because Danielle was always his right hand.
“My sisters and I were not exactly excited to have to deal with the cows, but Danielle was always in her element,” Larissa recalls. “She’s the one who loved to spend time with Dad hunting for and tending to the cattle. We always thought she was going to be a vet and we called her Dr. Danielle, but here she is about to graduate next year with her heart set on medical school – a doctor of people and not animals.”
Danielle is one of those rare and gifted all-around students who defied the odds even from an early age. She was an all-star high school athlete and student coach, excelling in everything, including basketball, volleyball, track and field, and softball. She volunteered in a long-term care home and vet clinic, was a group leader at vacation Bible camp, and graduated high school with an almost unheard of 99.2 percent entrance average.
“If I can inspire other young women to pursue their education and reach for their own dreams, then I want to do it.”
“My writing has always been fairly proficient with strong English skills, but I would always go for extra help after class,” she begins, her intense blue eyes focused and direct. “When our principal retired, I got him to tutor me because I knew that if my grades were good enough I could obtain scholarships. That was important to me because there wasn’t a lot of money growing up on the farm.”
Danielle is now in her fifth year of Kinesiology – having extended her undergraduate degree by a year so she could excel at hurdles on the U of R track team, which involved training five days per week, lifting weights, and all the while keeping an 80-plus average in all of her hard-core science classes and labs. She currently works at the university’s Fitness and Lifestyle Centre; acts as teacher assistant and lab instructor; volunteers at the Dr. Paul Schwann Centre assisting at-risk cardiac and stroke patients and those with diabetic complications; is an active member of the Kinesiology and Health Studies Students Society; and, volunteers at a student-run health clinic in Regina’s poorest neighbourhood in North Central.
“It can be quite a culture shock when you see people who are the poorest of the poor, struggling with life’s many challenges. It makes you appreciate everything you have and it makes you want to serve,” she says thoughtfully. “I love making a difference, and spending time at SEARCH (an acronym for Student Energies in Action Regina Health), which allows me to give back in such a meaningful way. I always count my blessings when I leave.”
Danielle has her sights set on medical school, but also sees a future for herself as a physiotherapist, understanding first-hand the struggles that elite athletes face in pursuit of athletic perfection. She is just as passionate about women’s rights, and the fact that many women feel uncomfortable speaking up about what they need from their physicians and OBGYNs. “I want to educate women and normalize health care for women,” she says passionately. “I want to use whatever platform I have to be a champion of women.”
Danielle admits that she is a relatively private person uncomfortable with the spotlight. “But if I can inspire other young women to pursue their education and reach for their own dreams, then I want to do it.”
In many ways, Danielle is much like her beloved grandmother, known simply as Oma, who was born and raised in Holland. Oma’s father was a banker, and when Jewish families were being sent out of cities to concentration camps and pending death, the family hid a young Jewish girl, the daughter of a fellow banker. It was during this time that Danielle’s grandfather served as a Canadian soldier during the Second World War. Family lore has it that he was driving his tank through the streets of Holland during the liberation when his tank splashed an attractive young woman on the sidewalk. When he stopped his armoured vehicle to get out and apologize, Oma instinctively slapped him on the cheek.
“She was feisty and opinionated and stood up for herself,” Danielle laughs, exuding the same feisty spirit. “They ended up falling in love and getting married. My Oma was pregnant with my aunt when she took a boat over to Canada, landing in Halifax, and traveling by train to St. Brieux, where my grandfather was from to begin raising her family.”
Generations later, as Danielle’s mom Lisa explains, the four Major daughters grew up in a remodelled 1913 one-room school house on the farm, with a ladder leading to the sleeping quarters and one tiny bathroom upstairs. “It was pretty tight quarters as you can imagine,” laughs Lisa, a city girl herself who became a nurse and fell in love with a quiet farm boy with big dreams of his own. “We had an old wood stove for heat and all of the girls learned how to split wood and do their part to keep the house warm and the farm operational.”
Danielle’s dad Charlie, the family patriarch, knew from a young age that he wanted to set off and establish a farm of his own, since his parent’s half-section wasn’t large enough for the next generation to subdivide and earn a living.
“My folks weren’t wealthy and I had to secure financing for the first quarter of land,” he begins. “When the high interest rates of the ‘80s hit, I had to work the oil patch to bring in enough money to keep things afloat. In the mid ‘90s, I bought eight head of cattle and grew it to what it is today. But it wasn’t easy. When BSE (bovine spongiform encephalitis – a serious cattle infection) hit in 2003, I went for a walk and knew we were in trouble. An infected animal was found in Alberta, but all of a sudden the borders were closed and we couldn’t sell our cows to anyone, yet we still had to feed them and keep up with the operation. It was a really challenging time. We still had to do all the work and we couldn’t get paid.”
The family struggled financially and emotionally. Lisa worked full time as a nurse manager to support the family while Charlie tended to the farm, teaching his young daughters how to tie their shoes, feed the animals, and excel in school. In spite of Charlie’s and Lisa’s best efforts to stay positive, that event left an indelible imprint on all of the girls. Daughter Ashley says BSE taught them that nothing in life can be taken for granted.
“It was a very stressful time to think that we might be one of those families that could lose their farm,” Ashley recalls. “But it taught us to be prepared and to make our own way in the world. It imparted in us a maturity and a resiliency that I don’t think we would have received if we’d grown up in the city. The farm is in our soul. It’s a really important part of our personalities.”
With little money to go around, and not many luxuries, the girls would often entertain themselves with fashion shows and plays. Danielle, as the baby, would be the “little dolly” but the feisty little firecracker didn’t want that nominal role. “She was wise beyond her years,” says Ashley. “She grew up to be the most academic out of all of us, the best athlete, the best at everything. She got her incredible language skills from our mom, and our dad’s ability with math. She just inherited the best of each parent’s gifts.”
Danielle was affectionately known as Curly Sue growing up because of her mass of blonde curls, but her sisters say you weren’t to be fooled by all of that cuteness because Danielle meant business, with an independent streak all her own.
“She was the funniest kid – so headstrong – with a vocabulary and intellect well beyond her years,” Larissa recalls. “I remember a friend of mine gave her a veterinary textbook as a gift when she was about seven or eight, and she loved that thing and read it cover to cover. It was just insane! People would talk to her and then say, ‘Is this kid for real?’”
Sister Katelyn says Danielle stood out from her peers right from the beginning.
“I never had to remind her to do her homework as a youngster. She was so self-motivated that when a Saskatchewan snowstorm would blow in causing the school bus to shut down, Danielle would beg her dad to get the truck out and blaze a trail to get to school.”
“I remember she had just started dance class, and the teacher asked the little kids if they had a good weekend, and everyone was chiming in with uh-huhs and yeahs, typical of five-year-olds, and here’s little Danielle pronouncing with perfect diction, “Yes, it was magnificent!’ She had this mature idea of the world from a very young age, probably because our mom is such a gifted writer and speaker, and our parents never talked to us like we were babies. We had chores and responsibilities and knew very early on that we’d have to make our way in the world.”
Lisa says all of the girls worked hard and were exceptional students, but Danielle was the most serious of them all. “I never had to remind her to do her homework as a youngster. She was so self-motivated that when a Saskatchewan snowstorm would blow in causing the school bus to shut down, Danielle would beg her dad to get the truck out and blaze a trail to get to school. She never wanted to miss class – ever – even though the girls easily could have taken a snow day,” Mom recalls with a smile.
“I just knew, even at a very young age, that if I worked extremely hard, I could obtain scholarships and support myself through school. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and have received $45,000 in scholarships. It’s allowed me to have a wholly enriched academic experience,” Danielle says proudly.
While Danielle is never without her textbooks, her focus at this moment, is with the calves and the job at hand. She takes a much-deserved break and gathers for some family photos on nearby bales of hay. She sits with her dad overlooking the animals and a job well done. Their interplay is quiet, each intuitively understanding the other.
“I always told my girls, ‘Don’t count on a man to make your way in life. Things can go wrong. Be your own boss and find your own way,’” says Charlie. Each of his daughters have heeded those words, all accomplished university graduates with Danielle set to graduate next Spring. They have all built independent futures away from the farm – at least for now. Dad reminds them that this land that they love so dearly will always be there for them to enjoy.
“It’s peaceful here and I can relax and enjoy myself without the intrusion of cars and people. It’s a place of solitude and privacy for me,” Danielle says contentedly. “I definitely see an acreage in my future.”
As for her future career, it’s anybody’s guess. Doctor? Physiotherapist? Animal whisperer? Danielle knows her eventual career will soon take flight, just like the last remnants of Fall leaves that begin to swirl and scatter with the latest gust of wind.
To help make a difference in the lives of other students like Danielle, please consider a gift to the Fall 2019 Appeal. For more information, please click here.