York University launches new international Indigenous Student Exchange Program with virtual pilot

Artwork by Métis (Otipemisiwak) artist Christi Belcourt

Pandemic restrictions haven’t dampened the spirits of the team behind York University’s new Indigenous Student Exchange Program; they have simply decided to begin the program virtually.

“Student exchanges enrich the lives of York students by deepening their experience and understanding of the wider world and offer a comparative perspective on the issues facing people here and elsewhere,” said Vinitha Gengatharan, executive director of York International, whose team is organizing the program along with the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services (CASS), the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, Schulich School of Business, the Faculty of Health and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) – including the vision and ongoing support of Professor Lily Cho.

“We wanted to ensure that our Indigenous students had exchange opportunities that were co-created and offered connections to the global Indigenous community,” said Gengatharan.

The exchange program, which launches this month, is funded by the federal government-sponsored Outbound Student Mobility Pilot Program. Ten Indigenous students at York University will join Indigenous students from partner universities worldwide to participate in a series of facilitated online workshops on the following themes:

  • What does Global Indigeneity mean? Ethics, Definitions, and UNDRIP
  • Knowledge Keeping and Sharing: Similarities and Convergences
  • Spirituality, World Views, and Environments
  • Disrupting Colonial Spaces and Re-Indigenizations: Political Movements
  • Language, Communication, and Cultural Expressions
  • Land, Cultures, and Identities: Diversity Around the World
  • Food Sovereignty
  • Navigating Identity in a Globalized World

Each York student will be paired with an Indigenous student(s) from another institution to complete a project – an essay, podcast, video, poster or other creative efforts — based on any aspect of the workshop themes. There are students participating from six York partner universities: Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia), Tecnologico de Monterrey (Mexico), Universidad de San Francisco de Quito (Ecuador), University of Costa Rica (Costa Rica), University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia) and University of the Philippines (Philippines). Faculty members from Ecuador, Mexico and the Philippines will also serve as guest facilitators.

“In an unprecedented way at York, this program will create a knowledge exchange platform that allows each student to share their unique knowledge based on the Indigenous nation which they come from, while also drawing attention to the fact that there exists a multiplicity of Indigenous perspectives and experiences,” says Breanna Berry, the Indigenous recruitment officer who is the CASS representative to the organizing team.

Professor Carolyn Podruchny, the course director and a historian who runs a summer institute for students in conjunction with the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, adds, “We will be exploring international Indigeneity as experiential education by enabling students to share their dramatically different lived experiences. It’s very exciting.”

She is hoping to begin each session with a prayer from an Elder to ensure that the sessions are grounded in spirituality and ceremony. The program organizers have also arranged to have counselling available for the participants if the discussions bring feelings of trauma to the surface.

Participation in the eight-week program is voluntary and students will earn a certificate of completion. However, York University students are also offered the option of course credits. They can register for the program as a course, “Experiential Education in Global Indigenous Histories,” and will participate for 11 weeks, rather than eight, requiring additional reading and an added essay.

“An objective of the program is to create a space that highlights the brilliance and ingenuity of global Indigenous educators, community members, activists and students,” said Berry.

It is also an opportunity showcase globally networked learning in another context.

“York professors have already demonstrated that virtual learning is a viable way to connect students from different countries and cultures, so we are confident that the students participating in this Indigenous Exchange pilot program will have a rich, rewarding experience,” said Helen Balderama, York International’s associate director of international programs and partnerships and one of the program’s organizers.

Podruchny is enthusiastic and sees real growth potential in the program.

“It’s a very neat model and the fact that it’s being delivered online will allow us to also bring in speakers from remote reserves in Canada,” she said. “It’s a way to learn about international Indigeneity in a very accessible way.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, York International