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Lessons from the first Summit for Mentoring Indigenous Graduate Students

Some insight from speakers at the sold-out summit, which was hosted by the Indigenous Education Network at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.


The push is on as universities seek to recruit and retain more Indigenous graduate students and faculty. But the invitation can lead those who take it up on a rocky road, especially when universities put the onus on Indigenous members of the university community to adapt to existing structures. Instead, universities need to assume responsibility for educating themselves and making changes accordingly, said speakers at the “Summit for Mentoring Indigenous Graduate Students,” put on this past February by the Indigenous Education Network at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

Indigenous graduate students can end up with a poor mentoring match when paired with a supervisor who has thrived within existing paradigms and pathways to research success, says Eve Tuck, an associate professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Methodologies with Youth and Communities at OISE and one of the organizers of the sold-out summit.

What’s needed to create healthy, welcoming environments for Indigenous graduate students and their scholarship depends on the cultural context and needs of the particular Indigenous students the university is serving, says Dr. Tuck. So, universities need to ask those questions in their own communities.

Here is some of what the Toronto summit speakers had to say:

Search out, listen to and value the expertise that may already be at your university. Treat knowledge on how to nurture Indigenous scholarship and mentoring relationships as the expertise it is, compensate it and don’t ask those sharing it to wedge it in among a pile of other responsibilities.

Support and value what Indigenous graduate students bring to the university. This includes the traditional knowledges, family histories, culture, community and kinship obligations that students carry with them into their academic work. Provide private and public spaces for them, and time to connect with their families and communities.

Care for them as people; celebrate their scholarship. Take time to eat and laugh with them, and allow them time to do their best work. “The foundation of the mentoring relationship is your relationship to your students as human beings,” said OISE associate professor Stephanie Waterman, from the Onondaga Turtle Clan, in upstate New York. Brag about their great work and encourage others to cite them, she added.

Realize Indigenous graduate students may bear the weight of many “firsts.” They may be first in their family or community to be doing graduate work. They may be the only Indigenous student in their program. Be sensitive to the impact of a lack of role models as well as the need to help those students navigate university systems and access funding opportunities.

Do your homework. Understanding Indigenous students’ specific cultural contexts also involves walking a fine line. Indigenous students should not be responsible for educating their supervisors or serving as emissaries for establishing research relationships with Indigenous communities. “Don’t expect Indigenous students to teach you everything about us, or expect us to automatically share our stories and teachings with you,” advised OISE master’s student Marie Laing, a Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River.

Indigenous students’ research and classroom material may be personal to their experience. That material may bring up difficult emotions as well as cultural and community obligations to treat it with particular care. “These are my stories,” said Kayla Webber, an OISE MEd student who claims Mi’kmaq descent. Let Indigenous students volunteer any difficult personal experiences themselves rather than feeling pressure to do so.

The “academic rock star” model doesn’t work. The common model of ambitious, self-sufficient scholarly pursuit runs counter to Indigenous values of shared achievement through the contributions and support of many, including those from students’ families and communities, said Métis keynote speaker Zoe Todd, an assistant professor of anthropology at Carleton University. Most Indigenous students come to university to make a positive contribution to their community and with a spirit of humility, added Robert Innes, head of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan and a Plains Cree member of Cowessess First Nation. They may be uncomfortable being seen as “experts” rather than as those with an opportunity and a reciprocal responsibility to share what they learn for the benefit of others.

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  1. Dr. Celia Kennedy / August 18, 2019 at 15:31

    Helpful comments. As we work to develop undergrad internships to help Indigenous students with graduate study career path choices and applicability in STEM programs, the need for integration of Indigenous ways of communicating, knowing and being with Western methods reveals itself.