James Beardy, VIU Aboriginal University Bridging graduate

Coming together to recognize Indigenous graduates during COVID-19

Author: Jenn McGarrigle

Virtual event allows grads to celebrate with their friends, family and peers

Graduating from university is a momentous occasion in a student’s life, but COVID-19 has made honouring and acknowledging this accomplishment challenging.

Physical distancing guidelines mandated by the provincial and federal governments forced VIU’s Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement to cancel the 16th annual Semélshun Aboriginal Graduation & Recognition Ceremony, which was scheduled to take place in Shq’apthut, VIU’s Aboriginal Gathering Place, at the beginning of April. Every spring and winter, the office organizes an event to recognize graduating Indigenous students, as gathering and feasting together in accordance with cultural protocols are important for both students and employees alike.

Semélshun, which means “paving the way” in Hulq’uminum, traditionally includes blessings from VIU’s Elders-in-Residence; speeches from peers; the bestowing of gifts such as blankets with a design by Coast Salish artist Stuart Pagaduan; and a chance to mingle with family and friends. Knowing how meaningful and important the event is for students, organizers decided to go forward with a virtual ceremony, inviting students, friends, family and other special guests to a Zoom event.

“It ended up being just what the students needed,” says Heather Burke, a Learning Facilitator with the Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement. “There was definitely this longing to be together to share the moment. The students were sad that they couldn’t be there in person to celebrate together, so it was bittersweet, but there was also a lot of happiness and gratitude that we were doing something.”

Nearly 80 students, family members, friends and VIU staff logged on from across Canada to participate. James Beardy, who is graduating from the Aboriginal Bridging Program and is about to enter the Resource Management Officer Technology program, emceed the event, which also included a video of VIU Elders drumming in the graduates and messages (either video or live) from VIU President Dr. Deb Saucier; Sharon Hobenshield, Director of the Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement; parent Alison Trenholm; and Cheryl Stone, Indigenous Employment Navigator. At the end there was also a chance for students and family members to say a few words.

“The honesty and the humour expressed by the family members who showed up was a highlight for me, you could tell they were just really happy to be there,” says Beardy. “One grandma was so excited to be there celebrating her grandson. She said, ‘We didn’t think he could do it, but he did!’” 

Hobenshield reminded grads to not let the fact that they can’t celebrate in person diminish their sense of accomplishment. 

“What I’ve realized in my own learning journey is that our success as Indigenous people in education has a ripple effect,” she told graduates. “You are a role model, a mentor to others in your family, in your community and in your nation.” 

In a video message, President Saucier reminded everyone to stay in touch so VIU can follow along with their accomplishments – and continue to provide support.  

“I know that it’s been a trying end of term and this isn’t the convocation you were hoping for, but I know that education makes you stronger and together we’ll get through this,” Saucier told grads. “You’re all part of the VIU family and if we can help in any way, we will.”

The event included a surprise keynote video from celebrity guest Suzette Amaya, a Vancouver-based reality TV star, radio show host, support worker and motivational speaker who congratulated grads on the hard work and dedication that brought them to this point.

“For every Indigenous person who succeeds, our future is so much brighter in this country,” she says. “The possibilities in your future are endless, you can accomplish anything you can put your mind to because you’re here today.” 

Burke says one advantage of hosting an online event was that it did allow family members from as far away as Ontario to be a part of the event, so even when physical distancing guidelines are relaxed and the pandemic is declared over, the office may choose to incorporate some sort of virtual element.

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