On Tuesday, February 25th I had the pleasure of attending the N’Swakamok Indigenous Conference; a conference organized by the three higher ed institutions (Cambrian College, Laurentian University and Collège Boréal) in conjunction with the Native Friendship Centre in our city. The entire day was powerful – the histories of the Indigenous Centres on each campus (linked to each institution above), the discussions, the humble questions, the sharing – but the part of the day that resonated with me the most was the student panel.

Four brave Indigenous students from each of the 3 institutions shared their journeys to post-secondary. Here are the key takeaways for me:

  • support students both academically and non-academically; many are far away from home
  • foster students with an open mind because they “still have lots of learning to do” to become good post-sec students
  • students need a sense of belonging at their institution and in the community
  • Indigenous centres allow students to stay connect, reconnect or find their culture and heritage
  • it is important for students to take care of their spirit
  • allow accommodations (formal and informal) to allow students to thrive (this helps build their academic confidence)
  • students crave support beyond graduation from their institutions; they want to know institutions value their success
  • seeing Indigenous people in positions of power on campus allow Indigenous students to see themselves in successful roles
  • a vehicle that helps them solicit social justice and social change within their home communities
  • they crave interactive and engaging classrooms
  • they want timely feedback on assessments
  • less students in each class to allow faculty to work in small groups and even one-on-one, when necessary; too many students in classes doesn’t allow for valuable relationship building

As the students were talking, I kept thinking, “Yes! Of course! Absolutely!” All of these suggestions are valid. Bottom line: relationships are important, community is important, support is important.

The students bravely shared some of the challenges they’ve faced on campus. One of the big ones: racism. Racism was something they all experienced on campus, both in class and outside of class. Students need support when faced with racism on campus and all bystanders need to speak up when they hear racism comments. Let those people know their comments are not okay. We can’t silently stand by.

When the moderator asked the students what they felt was missing from campus, they felt that there needs to be an improved tone on campus when it comes to tolerance and acceptance of culture other than one’s own. Another missing piece is support outside of academics: trauma, addiction, mental health, etc. impact a student’s ability to succeed if they don’t have access to proper resources.

When the students were asked what advice they would give Indigenous students coming to post-sec education in the future, they shared:

  • don’t be afraid to ask for help
  • ask lots of questions
  • find the Indigenous centre on campus and meet the staff
  • be true to yourself
  • find a mentor that supports you and your goals
  • seek out bursaries and funding opportunities
  • the only limit you face is the one you set for yourself

The bravery of these students to go on stage and share their journey honestly was inspiring. Students panels carry so much value. They can tell us what helps them, what they need, what challenges they face, etc.

The key is to now take this information and do something with it. We need to use student voices on our campus to elicit meaningful change.

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