They are ubiquitous in offices, homes and public places. Inspirational messages about overcoming obstacles, challenging fears, breaking through barriers. Often they are plastered on posters featuring a kite, or a cute animal or maybe someone hanging off a cliff.
Overcoming challenges is a noble goal, but for two University of Northern British Columbia students this is just the beginning of an inspirational journey of self-empowerment and helping others reach their full potential.
Yahlnaaw/Aaron Grant and Amy Blanding are recipients of the prestigious 3M National Student Fellowship for 2018. They are among a cohort of 10 university students nationwide selected for their exceptional leadership and their vision for enhancing the educational experience.
Both Yahlnaaw and Blanding embrace their individual challenges, they learn from them and teach others about the strength that comes with differences and the inherent power in finding your voice.
Yahlnaaw is HlGaagilda Xaayda (Skidegate Haida) from Xaayda Gwaay-yaay (Haida Gwaii). She will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in First Nations Studies this month and will begin her graduate studies at UNBC in the fall.
As an Indigenous scholar, Yahlnaaw is exploring how a colonial post-secondary education system does not encompass nor appreciate Indigenous knowledges. Yahlnaaw’s work revolves around providing the rightful space of Indigenous knowledges in academia. At UNBC, she is learning about herself, the colonial educational system and the limits colonial structures impose.
Working with First Nations Studies Assistant Professor Edōsdi/Dr. Judy Thompson, Yahlnaaw is examining Indigenous ways of knowing by thinking about how to decolonize a colonized mind. For Yahlnaaw, that means focusing on her own story, learning her Skidegate Haida language and sharing these experiences so others may also begin decolonizing their minds
“I realized I was able to put myself in my work, because I am my work,” Yahlnaaw says. “This helped me find my voice as an Indigenous woman.”
Yahlnaaw is sharing her experiences through the new Campus Cousins program at UNBC’s First Nations Centre. The program aims to improve the quality of life for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students while building and build community connections.
This is one way Yahlnaaw is taking on a leadership role in the UNBC community.
“Leadership should not be self-focused,” she says. “True leadership should strive to ensure everyone can be a leader in the various forms that leadership can be created.”
Blanding, a Master of Education in Multidisciplinary Leadership student, is also using her personal story to encourage others to think about how we understand what many consider to be limitations.
For Blanding, a knee injury during a hip hop dance performance opened her eyes to the possibilities of using an apparent setback as a springboard for creativity. Unable to perform her usual choreography, Blanding teamed up with other dancers to put together a new performance that was guided by their physical limitations.
“The beauty of the piece is that it had never been done before and it couldn’t have been done by anyone other than us because of the creativity that was found in our collective limitations,” she says.
In the classroom, Blanding believes that there are many opportunities for educators and students to reflect on the idea of limitations, and to “unlearn” their traditional ways of thinking, learning, and teaching.
“It’s not about accommodating difference and diversity, it’s about embracing it and seeking it out,” she says. “In the classroom there is real power that comes from recognizing that being broken isn’t something to be fixed or accommodated, but rather is a threshold experience that can create a profound educational shift.”
As part of the Fellowship, Yahlnaaw and Blanding will attend the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education conference in Sherbrooke, Que., next month. There they will meet the eight other 3M Fellows and begin working on a year-long project. They also receive a $5,000 financial award.
Incredibly, this is the second time two UNBC students have been named 3M National Students Fellows in the same year. In 2012, both Cameron Bell and Selena Demenoff were named fellows in the first year the award was created. In 2013, UNBC’s Stephanie Wall received the honour.