In a recent trip to Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Pitzer College students and staff participated in a mentorship program that emphasizes cultural exchange between indigenous and First Nations students.
The mentorship exchange program, part of a budding relationship between Pitzer and VIU, aims to share cultural knowledge and foster community connection between native students at both institutions. Participants from Pitzer are from a variety of backgrounds, but several had previous experience connecting with native cultures in Vancouver Island and southern California.
The program was made possible through collaboration between VIU's Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement, staff of Pitzer’s Native Youth to College program, and students from both schools.
Pitzer’s group, which consisted of seven students and four staff, had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the inner workings of VIU's elders-in-residence program, as well as the ‘Su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins program. Both aim to connect First Nations youth to their heritage and strengthen native communities at VIU.
Group members participated in local cultural events and activities with their hosts, including the blanket exercise, which leads participants through 500 years of indigenous history. According to a press release by VIU, the guests also visited a traditional Snuneymuxw First Nation territory, and attended a presentation about how First Nations protocol is observed at VIU.
Students said the visit was a transformative and eye-opening experience. Pitzer students said they were particularly inspired by VIU’s seamless incorporation of respect for First Nations cultures into their academic environment.
“Native people of the land were able to be a part of those institutions and benefit from those institutions,” Phil Brayley PZ ‘19 said. Brayley was impressed by how well Canada respects and recognizes First Nations communities, and hopes to integrate those attitudes of respect into life at Pitzer.
The Pitzer students are hoping to increase awareness of indigenous presence and culture on campus through a variety of tactics, including incorporating native art into campus murals and establishing a talking circle on campus.
Students are “trying to create ways to make Pitzer more accessible for native students, especially in southern California,” Dana Nothnagel PZ ’19 said. “There are a lot of opportunities here at Pitzer that are new, only just starting, and hopefully learning from the people that we met in Canada, we will be able to use that potential to the best of our ability.”
The students’ initiatives will be supported by continued collaboration between the schools. Pitzer is hoping to implement parts of VIU’s elders-in-residence program, and VIU is hoping to establish their version of the Native Youth to College program.
Enthusiasm for the visit was reciprocated by students at VIU.
“The relationship happened so organically,” said Troy Barnes, a fourth-year student at VIU. “We are all student leaders and mentors on campus, so that made it easy.”
The Pitzer group is “another new family that’s been added to our family,” said Sylvia Scow, VIU’s aboriginal projects coordinator. Scow added that the exchange program was “a great opportunity” for VIU students to step up as mentors.
Scott Scoggins PZ ’09, director of Pitzer’s Native Youth to College program, believes that engaging indigenous students with their native culture is crucial to their success. The Native Youth to College program, whose motto is “tradition for life, education for the future,” works to ground high school students in their cultural backgrounds while giving them the tools to succeed in higher education.
Scoggins himself said that he was “inspired, rejuvenated, and motivated” by the trip to VIU, and plans to implement elements of VIU’s elders-in-residence program and the indigenous portfolio.
He believes that cultural exchange and mentorship programs like these are crucial first steps for “creating spaces [on campus] for people of color, particularly indigenous people, whose needs are tied to land.”
Scoggins is observing a greater campus-wide interest in native and indigenous cultures, and is excited to see more people engaging with the issues of recognition and inclusion for indigenous students and elders at the Claremont colleges. He believes that this increase in dialogue will stand as the foundation for change and pave the way for future improvements and an increased indigenous presence on campus.
Pitzer students and staff will also be helping to paddle VIU’s canoe in this summer’s Tribal Journeys, a canoe journey that visits First Nations communities each year. There are plans for future collaboration between the two institutions, including the possibility of a semester-long exchange program.