Belonging at university – an equal future?

Illustration of people from many ethnicities

The first series of The Internationalist, a new podcast from the ACU, looks at the critical question of ‘Who gets to learn, and who gets to teach?’. With thanks to Larissa Kennedy, President of the National Union of Students, UK and Candace Brunette-Debassige, Acting Vice-Provost & Associate Vice-President (Indigenous Initiatives) at Western University in Canada, for their contributions and ideas in our third episode in the series, many of which are outlined below.

Around the world, the minds and lives of millions of students are profoundly shaped by their experiences at university. During the last several decades, the massification of higher education across the globe has ushered in changes. With universities no longer catering solely for a privileged elite, more students from indigenous and minority backgrounds have entered higher education. But what is their experience of being at university like? And how can universities create a sense of belonging for all who attend?

In many places, efforts are underway to make universities more inclusive spaces for all. Candace Brunette-Debassige has seen at first hand universities’ capacity to change and transform, albeit slowly. For over 20 years, she has been dedicated to the project of decolonising and indigenising institutions from within, shedding light on how policies and procedures in Canada were not built with indigenous people in mind.

‘My grandparents’ generation were legally prohibited from attending universities unless they enfranchised. And enfranchised meant that they gave up their rights as indigenous people to assimilate. That was forced assimilation to get higher education but even after those laws were abandoned there was continued to be an assumed assimilation. The assumed assimilation happens in how the institution is built on Euro-Western ideologies.’ - Candace Brunette-Debassige

Despite this struggle, Candace has witnessed positive intergenerational shifts take place, which gives her hope. For her mother’s generation growing up in the 70s, indigenous people were entering university as mature students or through access pathway programmes.

Today in 2020, more First Nations students in Canada are entering university, and are doing so straight out of high school, although they remain chronically underrepresented overall.  More indigenous faculty members and the creation of positions like Candace’s mean that indigenous voices are starting to be heard at different levels and to teach things from an indigenous standpoint.

‘We’re in 2020 and every university and college in Canada has indigenous student services. And this is a unit that’s there to support them. So it’s not just about a service that helps students once they get in and helps them get through. “Okay so you know how to code-switch, okay you have to act like this when you go into certain spaces.” We’re starting to actually even move beyond that and say: “You know what? Indigenous people don’t need to change, the university needs to change”.’ - Candace Brunette-Debassige

For Larissa Kennedy, although decolonising work within the academy is crucially important, there are still limits to how far universities, as we know them, can be inclusive. Black students face instances of racism and microaggressions that make navigating existing institutions challenging.  

‘You feel like you’re trying to do the work and get through that, which obviously for any student is a journey, but also on top of that feeling this pressure on you [as a Black student] to change the institution, because you’re looking around and thinking “I don’t want the next set of Black students, the next set of students of colour after me to have to experience this as well”.’ - Larissa Kennedy

Larissa advocates building spaces outside of the academy, as well as constantly trying to push boundaries from within. Her work with the team at the Free Black University is an example of this, where they are building a hub for radical and transformative anti-colonial knowledge centred around black healing.

Linked to this is the issue of representation. Classrooms and universities should be for everyone, regardless of their heritage. What students are taught, the way they are taught, and by whom are crucial in fostering a sense of belonging. When talking about change, it is vital to have representation from marginalised communities amongst the scholars in the academic community.

‘I study politics, social studies, Hispanic studies, but I actually ended up seeking out Black women in the history department, in the sociology department. They weren’t even related to my study directly but I was like “You’re there and I need to find out what you’re up to and what you’re doing just so I can feel like this is possible”.’ - Larissa Kennedy

Similarly, Candace ‘viscerally’ remembers the moment as a young woman when she entered a classroom and saw for the first time an Anishinaabe woman teaching. The experience profoundly affected her, forcing her to confront her own internalisation of colonial and racist ideologies, and has shaped so much of her work since.

‘I didn’t have the self-esteem. I really believed everything everyone said about Native people. I really did. I internalised it and it was through my education by indigenous people around decolonising ourselves that I started to deconstruct that and start to release the shame that I had believed. That I was not smart enough, that I didn’t belong there, that my voice didn’t matter.’ - Candace Brunette-Debassige

Despite recurring themes, it is clear there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to fostering inclusivity for all students. In tandem with decolonisation and indigenisation efforts, each institution must first recognise which knowledge systems have the power to bring about change. Central to this work lies the students themselves – their communities, their traditions, and their ways of knowing – all of which must be harnessed to unlock the true transformational powers of education and build truly equal futures.

You can discover more podcast episodes here, or by searching for The Internationalist on your preferred podcast platform.