Sheldon Scow, coordinator of VIU’s Community Cousins program, gifts a scarf to Garifuna elder Emily Palacio, director of the Hand in Hand program in Belmopan, Belize.

Indigenous peer mentors join international cooperation project

May 1, 2023
Author: Eric Zimmer

A new initiative at the University of Belize is taking its inspiration from VIU’s Community Cousins program.

Vancouver Island University (VIU) is helping to build an Indigenous peer mentorship program in Belize that draws its inspiration from VIU’s ‘su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins program.

The initiative is part of VIU’s multi-year partnership with the University of Belize (UB) under the Skills to Access the Green Economy program. Through the program, which is implemented by Colleges and Institutes Canada and funded by Global Affairs Canada, VIU is helping Belizean institutions develop programs that teach students in agriculture and agroforestry programs how to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The ‘su’luqw’a’ Community Cousins program gives Indigenous students the opportunity to gain leadership and employability skills through outreach and mentoring activities. The University of Belize is looking into ways to better support Indigenous students and recently set up an Intercultural Indigenous Language Institute.

“For the last few months, we’ve been working with our Belizean partners to help determine what Indigenous peer mentorship could look like at UB,” says Darrell Harvey, VIU’s Manager of Global Engagement.

Two staff members from the Office of Indigenous Education and Engagement joined Darrell and International Projects Officer, Alexandra van Vianen, on a visit to Belize to share more about the Community Cousins program. Sheldon Scow is the program’s coordinator and Cheryl Stone is the Indigenous Development Manager.

“This trip was an amazing experience and I am very grateful to have been a part of it,” says Sheldon. “It exposed me to a new culture and people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I learned a lot about a group of Indigenous people and saw the similarities and differences between our cultures. I learned about the university system in another country and saw some of the struggles they go through with faculty, staff and students.”

“Being recognized by another country’s university as a model to inspire their own growth and development is an opportunity to look at what has been done and see how far we have come,” adds Cheryl. “It has been an honour to be invited to share the history and growth of the program since it started more than 10 years ago.”

The VIU team worked with Dr. Pio Saqui, a professor and faculty lead for a Maya student group at the University of Belize. They also met Delmer Tzib, an historian and the director of the new institute.

“Together we explored how Elders and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers can contribute,” says Darrell. “We also met with students to learn more about things like how they identify. Is their Indigeneity an important part of who they are? Does it affect how they experience going to university? Some young Indigenous people there feel disconnected from their culture - not because of an experience like Canada’s residential schools, but more because of more general assimilation and parents wanting their kids to learn English, to fit in and succeed in Belizean society.”

The goal of the trip was to develop a framework for the mentorship program.

“We visited some Elders in quite remote regions to talk to them about how they could share some of their knowledge at the university,” says Cheryl. “Part of this program is helping Indigenous students reconnect with their identity. Bringing in the Elders creates opportunities to create that network of support.”

The partners are aiming to launch the new mentorship initiative next fall. Pio and Delmer will travel to VIU this June to observe the Community Cousins program in action.

“We have a longstanding relationship with the University of Belize and we are excited to see our partnership grow further into the field of Indigenous education,” says Darrell.

Sheldon Scow

Honouring tradition and building community connections, Sheldon Scow, coordinator of VIU’s 'su'luqw'a' Community Cousins program, gifts a scarf to Garifuna elder Emily Palacio, director of the Hand in Hand program in Belmopan, Belize.

Darrell Harvey in Belize with student

Meeting with Mr. Filberto Rash, Principal of Tumul Kin Center of Learning, a high school in the Blue Creek area of Toledo, Belize that utilizes traditional Maya practices to deliver their curriculum. 

belize picture

Ino'on Laoh Student Association members engage in a focus group activity at the University of Belize. 

Belize picture

Elder Noo’ch Winik Salucio Chi’ac describes the traditional methods of sugar cane harvesting with a handmade wooden press in San Antonio, Toledo.

Belize trip

Maya Elder Alfonzo Tzul shares stories of growing up in San Antonio Cayo over a cup of coffee at Oxmul Coffee, which is grown and harvested using traditional Indigenous agriculture practices.

Darrell Harvey and students in Belize

Exploring diverse perspectives and Indigenous student needs during a focus group held on March 8, 2023 with the Ino'on Laoh Student Association, University of Belize faculty, Intercultural Indigenous Language Institute, and staff from VIU’s Office of Indigenous Education and Engagement and Global Engagement team.

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