Master of Arts alumna and Indigenous Community Liaison Sandra Fox works to amplify Indigenous voices at UBC Okanagan.
FIVE YEARS AGO, SANDRA FOX was working as an Aboriginal Student Advisor with UBC Okanagan’s Aboriginal Programs and Services. In this role she connected with Indigenous students, supporting them with their academics and personal goals, and listening to their stories about their families and home. Although students came from various backgrounds and communities across Canada, their experiences were remarkably similar, with consistent threads weaving their stories together.
“When I worked as an Aboriginal Student Advisor, I was early in my identity journey. Although I was comfortable with who I was as a First Nations person, I didn’t completely understand the historical issues,” explains Fox.
To help deepen her awareness of this history, Sandra enrolled in a 100-level Indigenous Studies course. It was in that class where all of the threads truly came together.
“I knew about the Indian Act and colonization, but sitting in that class and having it framed in that way, it just all came together. It was what I had been looking for my whole life. I could see the history of my family and what has happened throughout my life. Everything I had wondered about—like why we do things a certain way, or why we had issues, started to become clear.”
STUDENTS’ IDENTITY JOURNEY
It was at that point that Fox knew she needed to learn more—not only about her own identity, but about the interconnectedness of Indigenous peoples’ experiences and how she could make a positive change. Going back to school to pursue a Master of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies was the perfect fit.
Fox began her graduate research with a focus on the Indigenous identity of students. As her research progressed, she discovered a common theme in how the students’ identity and feelings about their lives and families changed after attending university.
“I also heard stories of students coming to university and struggling with the work or feeling unseen, and then ultimately going home,” says Fox. “I wanted to explore this, and look at how cultivating Indigenous identity could result in higher success within an academic setting and contribute to a more wholesome view of self.”
Her research ultimately evolved into exploring the Indigenous student: how their identity changes and has been influenced by colonization, how the culture of universities impacts this journey, and what can be done differently from a student’s perspective.
EXPLORING THE IMPACT OF HIGHER EDUCATION
In exploring the students’ identity journey, Fox spoke to them about how they saw themselves when they were young, how elementary school and high school changed their self-perceptions, and how their perceptions may have changed again in university.
She was surprised that students spoke of an unseen cultural impression upon starting university that represented a general feeling of not fitting in or belonging. Together with the students, Fox explored the factors behind this feeling.
“I worked hard to honour student’s voices, and I hoped that in the future my research could provide a path to change for universities.”
Looking at the history of the Indian Act, Fox’s work also studied how Indigenous people weren’t “others” before colonization, but rather, they were ‘themselves.’ This history helps frame the perspective of Indigenous peoples today and provides a good foundation to explore the importance of integrating Indigenous values within a post-secondary setting and how this can be done successfully.
Through her research, Fox also noticed a relationship between the issues students outlined and the challenges that Indigenous researchers face. Both identify integration as an important part of the work, meaning that all truth, reconciliation and decolonizing work should be integrated into the system in order to be meaningful.
PUTTING RESEARCH INTO PRACTICE
Following the completion of her master’s degree, Fox continues to play an important role in weaving together the stories of Indigenous peoples at UBC Okanagan. As an Indigenous Community Liaison with the Indigenous Research Support Initiative, she works with communities and researchers, helping to navigate topics such as aligning research work with Indigenous community guidelines, grant wording and getting to the core meaning of the work.
“I’m quite lucky that my position exists because it allows me to continue the work I was passionate about. I never just wanted a job; I wanted to have a job that truly meant something to me. I want to go home after work and hear my kids say ‘Look, Mom’s doing something!’”
Fox hopes to open up more conversations about truth and reconciliation, creating more space for understanding. Her work is about doing research differently—more holistically and ethically—in partnership with Indigenous communities.
“There are people who reach out to me and want to work with the Indigenous community, but often expect a short answer or a synopsis of the ‘ten things they need to know.’ I don’t believe the voices of Indigenous peoples can be distilled down like that. I hope we can have those meetings and understand that it’s more about the ‘long game’ and incorporating our backstory and values.”
MAKING SPACE FOR OTHERS
Fox’s graduate student journey wasn’t always easy and, in a way, her research became autobiographical, helping her work through her decolonization journey. She hopes that her contributions can make space for future Indigenous students.
Fox also encourages graduate students to seek help and resources whenever they need them. “These resources can help you connect and feel seen within your research and graduate student experience.
“As an Indigenous person coming to an institution that generally has a western view on things, you often hear that your history does not have value. My advice to other Indigenous graduate students would be to not let this stop you if you can. Each time, we make a little bit more space for the next people who are coming.”