Indigenous Students Strive to Balance Two Worlds

May 01, 2013

On March 25, graduate students and faculty members from Arts and Humanities, Don Wright Faculty of Music, Information and Media Studies, and Education presented research posters at Western University’s Research Day. The annual event featured over one hundred presenters and attracted a large crowd of inquiring minds from the university, general public, and media. Sarah Burm, a first-year PhD student from the Faculty of Education, presented her poster Between Two Worlds: Aboriginal Students as Border Workers, summarizing her Masters work to help non-indigenous secondary school teachers understand and incorporate Indigenous perspectives in their classrooms. Sarah interviewed college-level Indigenous students about their experiences in Ontario secondary schools and found they had difficulty identifying with both their traditional culture and the white culture of their schools. She shared her findings with teachers to help them find ways to enhance learning for Indigenous students.

“Indigenous students described their experience,” Sarah recalls, “as having to navigate a very white school system and then try to find their way with Indigenous knowledge and make sense of both worlds.” One student from her study describes it best: “I never knew who I was. I knew that I was Oneida, well what is that? What does it mean to be an Indian? It was very difficult, so what did I try to be? I tried to be white. It was a hard life.”

The current education system doesn’t validate both worlds because teachers often aren’t aware of this cultural identity crisis and may not understand enough of the local knowledge to feel comfortable reaching out or incorporating Indigenous topics. “I think back to my own teaching experience in northern Ontario,” Sarah reflects, “and I realize how many competing elements influenced my work. I didn’t always have time to think about how my actions or inactions could affect Indigenous students.”

Teachers play a vital role in supporting Indigenous students by getting informed, showing sensitivity through behavior and relationship-building, and discussing current events regularly outside of an Indigenous unit. Sarah hopes that by encouraging local Indigenous students to share their stories of schooling, as they do in her graduate research, they can influence how teachers view and support them. “How are students using their stories,” she wonders, “to challenge the assumptions that continue to perpetuate Indigenous youth as an at-risk population?” Ultimately, the goal of Sarah’s Master’s and PhD research is to create a ripple effect that leads to better strategies for educating Canadian teachers and helps all Indigenous students find the balance they need to succeed.