When Devin Russell stepped inside a classroom on the other side of the world last year, he felt connected and accepted.
He felt right at home.
Russell spent three months, from May to August 2017, as a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Scholarship winner, through the Cross-Cultural Indigenous Knowledge Exchange (CCIKE) program between the University of Northern British Columbia and Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, a Maori education institution in New Zealand.
Russell, who is expected to graduate with his First Nations Studies degree from UNBC in May, was among 19 students from across Canada to receive the scholarship. A Grade Point Average of at least 3.0 was required to earn one of the coveted spots.
The internship at Whakantani High School meant working with students in the school’s Maori language and cultural programs.
For Russell, who is Gitxsan and grew up near Hazelton, B.C. and whose degree focused on First Nations language and cultural revitalization, the similarities were striking between the two learning environments in Canada and New Zealand.
“They take the Maori cultural, language, songs and dances seriously and the fact that they have these programs in a mainstream high school meant I wanted to learn as much as possible from them and bring that knowledge back to Canada,” said Russell.
“We have a lot of the same cultural values and I identified with them on a basic level of understanding. I immersed myself right into the cultural celebrations and it was easy to be accepted by everyone.”
The Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Scholarship was created by the Government of Canada. The CCIKE Program permits students, including Indigenous students to not only experience another Indigenous culture, but also to travel abroad. Most UNBC students have never been abroad or even left northern B.C. and hence the CCIKE program allows students to become acquainted with the world yet also show the world that their small communities can indeed be the centre of the universe for many.
When the students returned from their exchange at the end of August, the Canadian Government hosted them, along with donors who fund the program, at a gala dinner at the Governor General’s Residence at Rideau Hall in Ottawa
Russell represented UNBC and was selected as one of three students to speak at the dinner to reflect on his exchange and thank the donors.
Between first stepping foot on UNBC’s campus in Prince George in 2013 to travelling to New Zealand and working with Maori youth, Russell has come a long way.
He earned his Dogwood Diploma at the age of 24 and enrolled at UNBC.
“I love UNBC. I love the small class sizes, the community and my First Nations Studies professors,” he said. “The First Nations Centre really helped me a lot.”
With a goal of eventually earning a Master’s degree, Russell is now working with School District No. 82 in Terrace as a First Nations support worker. The responsibilities of this position include: working with students to further their understanding of First Nations language and culture, provide one-one assistance in their educational needs, and provide general support in their educational needs.