Finding community at UVic

Opinions

Why I’m thankful to have found the Native Students Union (NSU)

Photo by Isabella Kennedy.

I spent my first year at the University of Victoria (UVic) isolated from the Indigenous community on campus. I come from a small town known for its totems and hiking trails and spent 13 years at the same small private school with a student population of just over 300 people. At university, I was a small fish in a big pond for the first time.

I remember spending the first week at school counting down the hours until my dad would pick me up in the Jeep as we made the 45-minute drive home for the weekend. I was clueless about the resources available to Indigenous students and the community that awaited behind the mysterious glass doors of the First Peoples House.

As an Indigenous student, my post-secondary journey has been a different experience, continually confronted with the challenges of being in a colonial institution. Finding and creating a community away from home has kept me grounded. I’m thankful that in my final year at UVic, I’m in a position to help other Indigenous students find a sense of community through my position as a Councillor-at-Large with the Native Students Union (NSU).

The NSU council is an elected body of Indigenous students at UVic who represent the Indigenous student population at the university, and provide leadership and guidance to the NSU. As a collective, the NSU provides resources and support to Indigenous students, helping them transition to a post-secondary lifestyle. The NSU is a community of Indigenous students who look out for each other and understand the unique experience of what it means to be an Indigenous student within a western-colonial academic setting.

Becoming an active member of the NSU and sitting on the council in my third and fourth year at UVic has allowed me to become further involved in the Indigenous community on campus. Getting involved in the NSU allowed me to establish relationships with people who understood what I was going through as an Indigenous student. It also reaffirmed that I was not alone. That there is a community willing to stand behind me and support me in my journey.

It wasn’t until my second semester that the trajectory of my post-secondary journey changed. My Indigenous Studies 101 course with Erynne Gilpin was eye-opening. I found other Indigenous kin who understood what I was going through. I was in an environment where people weren’t afraid to question and challenge the colonial institution. I’m thankful for the space Erynne created within the classroom to allow Indigenous students to be themselves and grapple with the reality of what it means to be an Indigenous student in a colonial institution. I was starting to surround myself with authentic and respectful relationships while discovering a new passion in pursuing an Indigenous Studies major.

In my second year, I started spending time in between classes in the NSU room in the Student Union Building. As a ‘regular’ in the room, I got to know fellow Indigenous students, slowly becoming more involved in the community. I had genuine and open conversations with people who were understanding and cared about what I had to share. I no longer felt isolated but rather a part of a community. I was slowly becoming a part of something bigger than myself.

At the end of my second year, I received a message from the Office Coordinator of the NSU suggesting that I run for a council position with the NSU. Truthfully, I was taken aback. My mind flooded with thoughts wondering if I was qualified for a council position. I wondered if I knew enough to support Indigenous students. I even questioned if I was a part of the Indigenous community on campus. After talking the idea over with my family and friends, I felt prepared to take on an active position within the NSU.

I am grateful to have been elected as a Councillor-at-Large for the 2020–2021 school year, and re-elected to the same position for the 2021–2022 school year. I’m thankful for the Indigenous community at UVic, specifically the NSU, who creates safe spaces for Indigenous students.

Being Indigenous students at university and away from our communities is hard. We are constantly confronted with the legacy and challenges of ongoing colonialism. Called out for often being the only Indigenous person in a classroom, having eyes dart towards us anytime someone makes a territorial acknowledgment. 

As Indigenous students, we are constantly asked to speak, acting as representatives for all Indigenous peoples, even when we have no information on the topic. Racist comments and colonial perpetuations of knowledge are frequent encounters and become a part of our daily experiences. Asking people to challenge their privilege and perceptions becomes draining and puts us in positions open to experiencing harm and violence.

Our identities are judged and asked about, as we must prove ourselves as Indigenous people. I’ve been in these situations, asked to pull out my status card to prove my Indigeneity to a clueless individual who was taken aback by my blonde hair and white-passing complexion.

Going through these experiences is neither right nor fair. However, Indigenous students continually face these experiences of ignorance while at university. The kinship ties we make as Indigenous students and the community we surround ourselves with allows us to survive the ostracization felt in classrooms. The colonial and racist prejudice held against us as Indigenous students are made bearable because of the Indigenous community on campus and spaces and organizations such as the NSU.

I raise my hands to the Indigenous students and staff on campus who are brave every day, challenge the colonial institution, and call out racism. I am thankful for the professors who acknowledge Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and living. Grateful to those who create space in their classrooms for Indigenous students to be themselves, questioning dominant ways of learning. 

I am indebted to the NSU who helped me to become a part of the Indigenous community at UVic and continually advocate for the needs of Indigenous students. Thank you to those who create physically safe spaces for Indigenous students that confront ingrained colonial ways of knowing. Thank you to those who include knowledge conducive to the needs and success of Indigenous students.

My position as a Councillor-at-Large with the NSU in my third and fourth years at UVic has allowed me to give back to the Indigenous community here, ensuring the success of other Indigenous students. While being online for a year presented its own set of complications, I’m grateful to have been surrounded by an adaptive team that worked to support Indigenous students remotely. In my second term on council and final year at UVic, I hosted events that brought us together. Allowing us to share and connect with one another through ceremonies,  meals, cultural activities, and laughs.

Being an Indigenous student at university is not an easy experience. It is one full of confronting racism. As Indigenous students, we contemplate what it means to be learning within a colonial institution grounded in western thought and built on stolen lands. As Indigenous students and peoples, we are survivors. We are resilient. We are a community of people who uplift each other in the darkest of times and celebrate each other’s victories in times of triumph. As a member of the NSU, I helped to create spaces for Indigenous students to be themselves, feel supported, safe, and validated in their experiences.

Thank you to my fellow council members and the NSU team for supporting Indigenous students and myself. For being my on-campus support system and lifting me back up after a hard day or week. Thank you for validating my experiences and always being willing to fight for what is right and just. I applaud each of you for standing up for our rights as Indigenous students and people.

In my fourth and final year of my undergrad at UVic, I raise my hands to my fellow NSU team. Without each of you, I would not be graduating this year. To my NSU team, huy ch q’u (thank you) for the laughs, the never-ending meetings, the lifelong memories, and undeniable support.