Sharing her voice opens possibilities for Indigenous Studies alumnus Keianna James

June 03, 2024

"I am the first member of my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree,” says Keianna James (BA and Research Certificate, 2024), a new alumnus of Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University (SFU). “My family and community are really proud of me, and I appreciate all their support.”

Making a positive impact in the campus community

A member of the Syilx (Okanagan), Secwépemc (Shuswap) and St’at’imc (Lil’wat) nations, James grew up on the Osoyoos Indian Band Reserve, also known as Nk'Mip, on the Syilx territory. When James first moved into residence at SFU Burnaby, getting involved with the Indigenous community on-campus allowed her to find a home away from home.

Keianna James volunteering with the First Nations, Métis & Inuit Student Association

“When I started at SFU, I was shy,” James recalls. “I found the First Nations, Métis & Inuit Student Association (FNMISA) – or the First Nations Student Association, as it was known at the time – because they offered a nice, quiet place to study.” By participating in activities and events, James met older Indigenous students, who always had advice to share on any challenges she was facing.

A passionate advocate for Indigenous students since secondary school, James went on to take a leadership role with the campus group. Through volunteering with FNMISA, James contributed towards increasing engagement with reconciliation at SFU. “I was involved in planning events, including a very meaningful event for Orange Shirt Day,” says James. “I also worked to grow our membership significantly, and during my time as a board member, we changed our name to become more welcoming to Indigenous students at SFU.”

Engaging with Indigenous knowledge

James also appreciated finding a learning environment that embraced her values and reflected her identity. “I started in the Indigenous University Preparation Pathway (IUPP) program at SFU,” she recalls. “I was initially interested in pursuing health sciences, but I found a passion for Indigenous Studies by taking some courses and decided to declare my major.”

In her Indigenous Studies courses, James was enthusiastic to learn about Indigenous knowledge and perspectives from professors and instructors who embraced decolonial approaches in their teaching. “I always loved reading as a kid, but I had to read a lot of books I didn’t enjoy in my high school classes,” James recalls. “Alix Shield’s course on Indigenous literature brought back my love of reading by enjoying the talents of Indigenous authors. I also loved all my courses on Indigenous literature and film with June Scudeler — I now have an amazing book collection!”

Alix Shield’s course on Indigenous literature brought back my love of reading by enjoying the talents of Indigenous authors.

Fostering an inclusive environment for Indigenous students

From her first days on campus, James understood a sense of belonging as essential to the success of Indigenous students. As a student ambassador with the SFU Indigenous Student Centre (ISC), James called upon her cultural knowledge and firsthand experiences to support Indigenous students to thrive and feel welcome at the university. 

“My advice to new Indigenous students is to use all the resources available to you at SFU — the ISC always has your back,” declares James. “The staff are great advocates for Indigenous students. The ISC also has Elders you can speak to when you need support.”

An Indigenous Studies degree opens up so many things to you. I would encourage anyone to take a course and see where it leads.

Opening doors to a fulfilling career

After graduation, James is exploring opportunities where she can use her knowledge from Indigenous studies to make a positive impact. “I am interested in ethical research with Indigenous communities,” says James. “I took research courses out of interest — without even knowing it, I had completed the requirements for the research certificate in Indigenous Studies, alongside my BA.” 

James is also considering paths related to Indigenous health or government work. “My career advisor said working for a health authority would be a great match for my Indigenous studies degree,” says James. “I have a lot of paths I can choose from in my career.” 

As a formerly shy student, James hopes to encourage others to take the first step towards achieving their goals. “The more you join in, the more you get out of your time at university,” says James. “An Indigenous Studies degree opens up so many things to you. I would encourage anyone to take a course and see where it leads.” 

Learn more about becoming an Indigenous Studies Major or completing an Indigenous Studies Research Certificate.