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Transition year Aboriginal students share their journey in university

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By Roy Pogorzelski Sweetgrass Writer EDMONTON







The “peanut butter and drymeat sandwiches” exhibit on display in the Rutherford Library Atrium features the visual and written work of 30 students, who explore the experiences of first year Aboriginal students at the University of Alberta.

The exhibit, which runs from April 12 to May 15, is a project that launches the journey through the U of A’s Transition Year Program. It stems from a course taught by assistant professors Christine Stewart and Keavy Martin in the Department of English and Film Studies, which aims to “Indigenize the Academy.”

“This is an open space installation located in a high traffic spot on campus that has the goal of transforming the U of A into becoming a more welcoming and inclusive campus through Indigenizing the institution” said Stewart. “Students engage in the transformation through their year-end final projects.”

The TYP is a program that assists new Aboriginal students in adjusting to attending university. The informal approach to the program creates an opportunity to introduce university through Indigenous philosophies.

The exhibit is based on a diversity of installations that the students were encouraged to work with, such as sculpture, painting, musical composition, poetry, auto-biography and art.
“Aside from this project being part of the curriculum, I enjoyed the informal approach to education and the reflection of Indigenous philosophies in the course content,” said Stephan Bureau, a Cree student in the TYP program.

Bureau wrote an auto-biography on coming out as a two-spirited Aboriginal person as his contribution to the exhibit.

“This was a personal reflection on not only representing myself on campus as an Aboriginal person, but also as a two-spirited individual,” he said. “It is important for Aboriginal communities to understand the western influence on gender and sexuality. It is important to decolonize these influences and return to more traditional understandings of two-spirited people.”

The exhibit aims to recognize the diversity that exists among Aboriginal students.  To avoid placing all Aboriginal people under one umbrella term, but understanding there is a commitment by the university to recognize the contributions of Aboriginal students on campus.

“There were discussions on what exactly this meant? Is it the responsibility of the students to educate about their Aboriginal background?  This lead too many philosophical discussions in the classroom.  The transformative exhibit is a step in the right direction because it transforms the space in a positive way.  It brings out the Indigenousness of the University community and creates a cultural space for the students,” said Stewart.

The exhibit allows for comment space for students. Sticky notes litter the exhibit, which offers room for dialogue and conversation. The feedback has been positive and the media attention has been encouraging.

 “Interestingly enough, since my autobiography provides information in written form, I have not had as much feedback as some of the other exhibits that are more visual.  However, a copy of my autobiography has been taken, so I need to replace it, but some of the comments have been based on my strong writing abilities and eye-opening discussion. There have been no negative comments,” said Bureau.

The students are proud of their accomplishments in creating a step towards “Indigenizing” the university.