Alum of the Month: Perry Bulwer

Perry Bulwer speaks into a microphone with a shelf of books behind him

January 14, 2024 - 11:45am

Coming to Vancouver Island University (then Malaspina College) in the early 1990s was a turning point in Perry Bulwer’s life.

He had dropped out of high school in 1972 to join a fundamentalist Christian cult when he was just 16 years old. When he got out 20 years later, he described himself as “intellectually starving.” The Liberal Studies program helped him overcome his religious indoctrination and take the next steps in his career. After graduating, he went on to become a social activist and lawyer.

Now retired, Bulwer has turned to writing and published his memoir, Misguided: My Jesus Freak Life In A Doomsday Cult, in September 2023. He also continues to advocate for other cult survivors. Here’s more about his transformative journey from life in a cult, to lawyer, to published author.

Why did you choose VIU for your education?

It was a serendipitous moment when I received the Malaspina University-College course calendar. It was just a few months after I had escaped a notorious religious cult while living in Asia. I had returned to my hometown, Port Alberni, in September 1991 and was feeling directionless, unsure what to do with my life after losing nearly 20 years of it to a misguided mission. Reading through the description of courses in that calendar helped me decide that education was the appropriate next step for me.

Tell us a bit about your experience at VIU and in your program.

Deciding to go to VIU and choosing the Liberal Studies program was one of the best life decisions I have ever made. That is where I first learned critical thinking skills and honed my writing talent. I found the small seminar and writing groups to be excellent crucibles for testing my newfound voice, which in turn gave me the confidence to speak in public. We learned from each other as much as from our professors and study materials. The small class sizes at VIU and having easy access to my teachers were also very beneficial. Overall, my education at VIU was a very positive, enlightening experience.

Were there any unexpected benefits you discovered after becoming a student?

My student loans were insufficient to survive financially, so I was fortunate to find part-time work on campus throughout all four years of my studies and during the summer breaks. I had a Class 4 driver’s license, so I was also often hired to drive the school bus taking students on interesting field trips, both locally and out of town. It was a bonus to get paid while enjoying those experiences with my classmates and other students.

What did you do after graduating?  

I initially wanted to become a high school teacher, but VIU didn’t have an Education program yet, so I enrolled in Simon Fraser University’s professional development program for teachers. My double-major in Liberal Studies and English was useful for that. However, the teaching profession was not a good fit for me, so I dropped out of that program. While deciding what to do next, I privately tutored international students for a year. Then, my social activism in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside led me to law school at the University of British Columbia. The Liberal Studies program, with its well-rounded courses and the critical thinking and writing skills I learned, was excellent preparation for legal studies. I graduated with a law degree in 2002 and I was called to the Bar of British Columbia in 2003.

Can you share a highlight of your time at VIU?  

I was very nervous when my first semester at VIU started. I had low self-confidence because of my religious indoctrination and was unsure of my intellectual ability to study at the university level. So, during the first few weeks I took a series of short extracurricular seminars that helped new students prepare for their studies. They were on topics such as how to use the library, how to read a book, how to do research, how to write an essay and similar subjects. After my first year, I encountered a teacher who taught one of those mini-courses and excitedly told her that I had achieved straight A’s in all my first-year courses. She boosted my confidence further by telling me that she knew I would do well because the students who took those seminars were often high achievers already. As it turned out, I received straight A’s in every course all four years, except for two B+’s, and graduated with distinction, receiving the Liberal Studies medal for highest GPA in the program.

What’s next for you?

Perry sits at a table with copies of his book

I am retired. My memoir, Misguided: My Jesus Freak Life In A Doomsday Cult, which includes a chapter on how my education at VIU was an essential part of my cult recovery process, was published in September 2023. I am still promoting that, primarily through podcast interviews. As part of my advocacy for the thousands of second-generation survivors – those who were born and raised in that cult – I also continue to provide information for academics in various fields related to my memoir. I am considering writing a second book, perhaps a sequel that explores issues I superficially covered in the final chapter of my memoir, such as the correlation between trauma, mental health, lack of medical care, poverty and homelessness.

What are you most proud of since completing your program at VIU?

While studying law at UBC, I wrote legal essays arguing that the Canadian and British Columbia governments had a constitutional duty to establish supervised drug injection clinics in the face of a growing epidemic of drug overdose deaths and communicable diseases. Those legal arguments were used in the fight to establish Insite in 2003, North America’s first sanctioned supervised drug consumption clinic. I am very proud to have played a small role in the creation of Insite, which has saved thousands of lives and millions of health-care dollars. I am also proud to finally have my story published 32 years after escaping the abusive cult and overcoming my indoctrination through education at VIU.

What advice would you give current VIU students?

I was one of those students who attended every class, read all the course materials and completed all my assignments before their deadlines. That was partly because I was intellectually curious and conscientious, but also because I was taking on debt to get educated, so I wanted to make the most of my time at VIU. I sometimes heard the term “keener” applied to eager students like me, but I consider it a complement, not a criticism. I highly encourage all students to do the same.

Tags: Liberal Studies | Our Alumni

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