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Reflections on being racialized and Indigenous in student affairs

A recent CACUSS panel shed light on the realities that many racialized staff face.


For the first time in its 50-year history, the Canadian Association for College and University Student Services (CACUSS) held a plenary panel, titled “Being Racialized and Indigenous in Student Affairs: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,” which centred the experiences of colleagues who are Indigenous, Black, and people of colour. Race in the academy is a topic that has received increasing attention. For CACUSS, it became critical to host this dialogue on a national scale, particularly as we continue to reckon with pervasive whiteness and colonialism in postsecondary spaces.

Hosted by CACUSS’s first Indigenous president, Mark Solomon (proud member of the Henvy Inlet First Nation), this plenary was carefully curated to ensure that there was a diversity of lived experience amongst the panelists. While identity-based representation was considered in terms of racial and gender diversity, additional considerations included breadth of professional backgrounds and seniority, regional representation, as well as having individuals from both colleges and universities. However, despite these differences – in race, role, region, institution – clear themes and shared experiences became evident as the panel offered their stories. This article seeks to preserve some of these insights.

Patty Hambler, director of student affairs and services at Douglas College

The burden of representation is an ever-present pressure that can sit on the shoulders of racialized and Indigenous staff members. For Ms. Hambler (Nehiyaw Iskwew), part of the challenge was the way her Indigenous identity might be invisible or invisibilized in different spaces. She talked about the dissonance and difficulties that exist when navigating multiple worlds – being a professional at a conference and engaging with peers, as a stark contrast to the injustices and challenges faced by Indigenous community members in her own personal life. Privilege becomes a double-edged sword – having the opportunity to engage in professional events and work towards change, but also the strong sense of responsibility (and sometimes guilt) that comes with being one of few to have this opportunity.

Ms. Hambler’s commitment as a leader therefore intentionally involves advocating for Indigenous community members and cultivating more spaces where racialized and Indigenous practitioners can celebrate their identities. This is especially critical when many share the experience of feeling out of place in rooms where their peers and the portraits of those that came before are all fairly homogeneous in nature. Ms. Hambler spoke about how she is often the only Indigenous person in the many rooms she enters and at the tables at which she sits in the higher education context. Being the only one has been a consistent part of her experience in postsecondary, as both a staff member and a student – even in her pursuit of education, it wasn’t until completing her master’s degree that she had the opportunity to be taught by an Indigenous faculty member.

Hillary Nguyen, international student advisor at the University of New Brunswick

When Ms. Nguyen attended college, she was the only international student in her class. It was this experience that motivated her to pursue student affairs. Her current role as an advisor to international students focuses on supporting them to settle in and succeed. Ms. Nguyen spoke to the tensions that exist between her professional identity and her identity as an Asian woman – whether it is the expectation to speak for entire communities, or the impact of hate crimes against her community. Reflecting on the murders of several women of Asian descent in Atlanta in March 2021, Ms. Nguyen shared the alienation she felt in trying to process the attack. Although she understood how to support students and was able to be there for them, she was challenged to find the time, space, and community she needed to support herself.

For  Ms. Nguyen, navigating student affairs as a racialized practitioner has been a journey without a map. In this uncharted territory, she finds herself modelling the way for others. A particularly complicated part of this journey has been the notion of “fit – the tension between authenticity and conformity. Looking back on her days as a new professional, Ms. Nguyen called herself a chameleon – she had to lose bits and pieces of her own identity to fit in, as conformity was seen as a pathway to privilege and the power to make change. Yet authenticity is not without its own challenges. As Ms. Nguyen explained, though she values authenticity, she also recognizes that asking racialized colleagues to be authentic in an oppressive system can further expose them to microaggressions, harm and trauma.

David Kim, dean of Chestnut residence and director of student life at the University of Toronto

How can you authentically be yourself when your social networks within the field don’t share the same experience as you, and aren’t navigating or being subjected to racism as part of the job? For Mr. Kim, a cornerstone of his experience has been the hustle. While he attributes his strong work ethic to being part of an immigrant family, being racialized in a predominantly white field brought with it an added burden of working harder to prove himself – to prove that he deserves to belong and be accepted. How hard you (over)work, however, may not always matter. Like Ms. Hambler, Mr. Kim noted the numerous times he has questioned whether his race played a role in not being selected for a position, as well as the many times he didn’t end up applying because he didn’t fit the image of what a successful candidate might look like.

During the panel, Mr. Kim admitted that if someone had told him years ago that he would advance to being a senior student affairs professional, he would have laughed. Having been in the field for over a decade, such ambitions didn’t feel realistic when he started. Crucially, Mr. Kim sees his own struggles and successes as a tool to give back to his community. The pressure to perform and present differently has resulted in going the extra mile to mentor and support fellow racialized colleagues, and to demystify tacit expectations and norms in postsecondary spaces.

Cynthia Nkamicaniye, equity, diversity and inclusion advisor at McGill University

Ms. Nkamicaniye’s priority is also cultivating better spaces for the next generation. Pragmatic in her approach, she focuses on having a meaningful impact in the spaces she works – partly because belonging doesn’t always feel achievable. For her, it is more important to feel a sense of belonging with her community rather than in the field. It is also crucially important to find ways to build your confidence. Ms. Nkamicaniye spoke about the impact that encountering countless obstacles can have on one’s confidence. After all, when you’re told it’s a meritocracy and your efforts aren’t achieving results, the question becomes “What’s wrong with you?” What ends up being overlooked are the barriers inherent to the environment itself.

As she works to foster more inclusive environments, Ms. Nkamicaniye centres her values in everything she does – but this can be a daily battle. It can mean there are situations where it’s necessary to choose silence so that you can continue to contribute to positive change, or it can mean choosing to speak up and take the risk of whatever consequences may come from sharing uncomfortable truths. However, supportive leaders can reduce these stresses. When leaders and managers are able to effectively support a diversity of employees, it can transform an individual employee’s experience. And it is the replication of these experiences that create the culture of a particular space – whether that space is a department, an institution, or the field of student affairs itself.

Canadian scholars of colour have advocated that racialized counternarratives constitute knowledge. These stories, although anecdotal, provide evidence of a shared reality for racialized and Indigenous student affairs professionals as they navigate Canadian higher education spaces. Challenging the absence of diversity while facing pressure to represent your community is one of the themes that has come up beyond this panel, in various articles and comments from student affairs practitioners of colour.

While affirming experiences for professionals of colour, this plenary panel also provided an opportunity for colleagues and allies to better understand the reality that many of their peers face. Through a poll that encouraged attendees to share their reflections, the themes that resonated the most were authenticity, hustle, resilience and belonging. Canadian student affairs professionals also shared what they hope to see next, including more affinity spaces for connection and mentorship, and concrete actions and data around hiring and employment at postsecondary institutions. At present CACUSS offers a monthly affinity group for Indigenous and racialized student affairs professionals, and is working towards creating a mentorship program for BIPOC professionals. These initiatives, along with the plenary, are part of an ongoing effort by CACUSS to demonstrate to professionals of colour that their expertise and experiences are valued, and that the field of student affairs needs to reckon with systemic racism – now, more than ever.

Charlene Lewis-Sutherland is senior advisor, equity and anti-racism teaching and learning at McGill University. Sania Hameed is an experiential learning officer at the University of Toronto.

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