Virtual Indigenous Student Exchange Program a hit with participants

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

Students and faculty alike are applauding the Indigenous Student Exchange Program, an eight-week pilot program that will end with a virtual public celebration of cross-cultural and transnational learning on April 7.

“It has been incredible to see the students engage with the program, take charge of the subject matter and generously share their Indigenous knowledge and heritage. The success of the program speaks to the importance of creating these safe collaborative spaces for Indigenous voices in post-secondary education” said Breanna Berry, Indigenous recruitment officer, CASS representative and program facilitator.

The program has brought together Indigenous students from York and four partner institutions (Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, Universidad de San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, the University of Costa Rica, and the University of the Philippines) for weekly facilitated online workshops about topics relevant to the varying experiences of Indigenous people, such as spirituality, knowledge, language, land, and identity. Faculty from partner universities have shared their own expertise, as have guest lecturers, including an Indigenous Elder and Knowledge Keepers.

In addition, the students are working in pairs or small groups with students from other countries to explore one of these topics, creating a film, video, podcast, website, artwork, or essay to reflect what they’ve learned and how they have related to the program. These works will be showcased at the April 7 celebration.

“The most exciting thing for me is to see the students connect with one another, get to know each other, and learn about how they experience their Indigeneity in their local setting,” said Professor Carolyn Podruchny, the course director.

Emma Litschko, a Mi’kmaq Indigenous studies student at York, says she’s “so happy I did this. It’s probably the best course I’ve ever taken. I’m getting a whole-world perspective on Indigeneity.”

She is working on a spirituality project in conjunction with another York student and one from the Philippines. Each of them will tell an Indigenous story from their community that offers different teachings.

“We’re looking at how Indigenous knowledge can be used to further academic knowledge, showing new perspectives,” Litschko said. “My tale is about the Horned Serpent and how ego and pride can make others feel worthless.”

Until participating in the program, Litschko says she had scant knowledge of Indigenous communities worldwide and is amazed at how many similarities there are in how they experience global issues, such as the impact of resource extraction.

Sara Fuentes Maldonado, a Kichwa-Otavalo student from Ecuador, said “It has been a dream of mine to connect with Indigenous people around the globe. We have historical similarities, but we all have identities that make us unique. It’s important to have a network of Indigenous peoples. We’re expanding our knowledge of who we are and this empowers us to speak up for issues that matter to us.”

At York, Caleb Wesley, a Cree student from Northern Ontario, says the program meshes nicely with his Global Indigenous Histories course, also taught by Podruchny.

“This program is furthering my learning in a very unique way,” Wesley said. “Everyone’s context is so vastly different, but we share experiences as well. It grounds my theoretical learning in reality.”

He is working with students from Mexico and Costa Rica on a group project focused on education.

“We’re all educators within our own communities and we’re looking at specific classroom strategies and interventions to promote Indigenous culture. We want to bring two knowledge systems together.”

The program has been an eye-opener for Jandrea Rose Oddoc, a Kalinga and Igorot student from the Philippines, both in terms of broadening her worldview and in gaining new respect for her tribe’s traditions.

“I saw my grandfather’s belief in spirits as superstitious before, but now I understand and respect it as culturally important,” Oddoc said.

In a post-pandemic world, the team would love to bring the students together face-to-face, but they are delighted by the success of the virtual version of the program.

Professor Letitia Neria from Tec de Monterrey, one of the facilitators, says it’s important for students to have a space where they can speak about their identities and learn about the experiences of other Indigenous peoples.

“In Mexico, we had a different type of colonization; the Indigenous community was dispossessed economically, not geographically, but both directions are wrong,” said Neria, a professor of cultural studies and Spanish. “Although they were able to continue their community practices, they were forgotten and many live in terrible conditions with no access to services.

“We have students from the Indigenous community who could benefit from these programs and bring something valuable to the workshops.”

Professor Consuelo Fernández-Salvador, an anthropology professor from Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, was a facilitator for the session on land, cultures, and identities.

“This exchange program is a great space and opportunity for both students and faculty, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to share local histories, knowledge and cultural practices, and rituals and appreciate the richness of Indigenous cultures all over the world,” said Fernández-Salvador. “But I also think it is a great space to reflect on colonialism and social injustice. More than anything, the common thread between different Indigenous groups is that they have had to deal with colonial powers that have attempted to invalidate and destroy much of that cultural and linguistic diversity.”

The exchange program was funded by the Canadian federal government-sponsored Outbound Student Mobility Pilot Program. It was organized by Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services (CASS), and York International.

“This exchange program brilliantly encapsulates how Indigenization is a crucial part of internationalization,” said Lily Cho, associate dean, global engagement at LA&PS.

Helen Balderama, associate director, international partnerships and programs, York International, added, “We are delighted to see our York students forging bonds, both with each other and with other Indigenous students worldwide, while sharing the richness of their cultures and broadening their worldviews. We learned a lot from this pilot and will be sharing many of those lessons and incorporating them as we plan for the next version of the program.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, York International