What Indigenous students want faculty to know

Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with three Indigenous students at the University of Waterloo to hear what they would like faculty members to know about their experiences as Indigenous students in higher education.

Kiel Harris (Gitxsan/Gitanyow) is a third-year student in Planning who grew up in northern British Columbia on two different reserves. Kiel had already completed a college diploma before coming to Waterloo and is, therefore, older than many in his cohort. Kelsey Hewitt (Anishnaabe/Lac Seul First Nation) is a third-year student in Geography and Environmental Management who grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo. Kelsey also identifies as a mature student, having not started university straight out of high school. Finally, Anika McAlpine (Cree/Moose Cree First Nation) is a first-year student in Medicinal Chemistry who grew up off-reserve in northern Ontario, in a community that has a large Indigenous population.

Our conversation was broad and far-reaching, touching on challenges related to creating a visible Indigenous space on campus, concerns about implicit bias if students declare their Indigeneity to their professors, and the transitional issues Indigenous students from remote communities might face.

In this blog post, I focus on the students’ ideas about what faculty members can do right now to support Indigenization and Indigenous students in their classrooms. I’ve organized their thoughts chronologically, beginning with the first day of class and carrying through to final assessments.

Six things faculty members can do right now

1. Acknowledge Indigenous lands and territories on the first day of class and/or on the course outline.

While territorial acknowledgements have become a relatively common practice on many university campuses, the Indigenous students I spoke to added a new dimension to this practice. They reflected on the difference it made to their experiences in the classroom, noting that they were far more likely to identify themselves as Indigenous students to a professor or instructor who had acknowledged the Indigenous territory. For them, a territorial acknowledgement is a key component of building a culturally safe and supportive learning environment.

2. Attend Indigenous orientation and welcome events on campus.

Many universities organize events at the beginning of the academic year to build community amongst and help ease the transition for Indigenous students, some of whom are experiencing life in the south/city for the very first time. The annual pow-wow at Waterloo is one such event and one of the students I spoke to talked about how much it meant to her to see one of her instructors there and how this small gesture made her feel like she would be able to talk to her professor about her experiences as an Indigenous person.

3. Incorporate examples that relate to Indigenous peoples, Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous histories in your lectures.

This issue was described as being absolutely critical to supporting Indigenous students, with a strong preference for inviting Indigenous faculty and other Indigenous knowledge holders into the classroom. This suggestion will need to be implemented with great care and attention to ensure that there is not an inequitable division of labour between Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty members and that the contributions of Indigenous knowledge holders from the broader community are appropriately honoured.

The students I spoke to all acknowledged that the opportunities to incorporate Indigenous peoples, knowledges, and histories might be less obvious in many STEM disciplines. But Anika shared an experience from one of her first-year lectures on viruses and bacteria in which the instructor made a connection to the use of small-pox infested blankets as an instrument of biological warfare against Indigenous peoples. It may have only been a one-sentence example, but she felt it was an effective way to acknowledge the ongoing effects on colonization.

4. Make space for Indigenous students to share their experiences and perspectives in your classroom.

Kiel and Kelsey both talked about this issue at length, drawing upon their experiences as more mature students who study human-environment relationships. They felt that their disciplines have direct connections to the issues faced by many Indigenous communities. Kiel, in particular, really valued the opportunity to share how his own community relates to contentious environmental issues, like pipelines, and felt he needed these chances to talk through how he was understanding the readings and how he could relate them to his own experiences.

5. Make time for dialogue and relationship-building with Indigenous students.

Indigenous students’ preference for a more dialogic approach also applies to the one-on-one relationship between a student and instructor. The students I spoke to remarked how intimidating it can be to attend office hours. But, at the same time, email communication is often at odds with the oral modes of learning and sharing knowledge that are common amongst many Indigenous peoples. Their suggestion was for professors and instructors to deliberately end class a few minutes early so that the students could approach them with questions.

6. Create opportunities (when possible) for Indigenous students to follow their passions and explore Indigenous topics that are not covered elsewhere in the curriculum.

As Kelsey reflected, many Indigenous students are on two different ‘learning paths’: one is the formal curriculum and the other is a personal journey to learn more about their Indigenous identity and cultures. All the students I talked to would like to see more opportunities to bring these paths closer together with course assignments that are flexible enough for Indigenous students to explore issues that relate to their own cultures and communities and that include topics not covered elsewhere in the curriculum. Instructors should also be aware that, when completing their assignments, Indigenous students might want to include oral teachings that were shared with them by Elders and other knowledge keepers, which might require some additional flexibility and a willingness to work with the students to ensure that these sources are appropriately acknowledged.

As an instructor, I really valued the opportunity to sit down with Indigenous students to hear about their experiences of higher education. I was struck by the concrete nature of their suggestions, many of which are strongly aligned with the student-centred and experiential approaches to learning and teaching that are becoming increasingly common at many universities. But their suggestions can, and likely should, be read as part of a larger effort to think carefully about how university administrators, staff and faculty might build deep and meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples—including Indigenous students!

Janice Barry is a settler-Canadian and an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning. Her research focuses on how urban and environmental planning recognizes Indigenous rights and title. She is also a member of FAUW’s Indigenization Working Group.

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