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Diversity still lacking at UBC Okanagan, say some racialized students

UBCO said it is working to diversify and decolonize the campus
Black, Indigenous and students of colour are often forced to create their own safe spaces on campus, according to a campus diversity report published in 2018. (File photo)

In 2018, researchers at UBCO published a campus diversity report that highlighted the experiences of Indigenous, racialized and LGBTQ2S+ students on campus. Three years later, some students of colour say not much has changed.

The report provided a scathing review of the campus environment, with many racialized and Indigenous students expressing the need for improved campus resources to embrace diversity on campus. Indigenous students, in particular, said that campus attitudes and practices largely erased Indigenous knowledge and teachings.

Overall, the report stated that the campus fostered alienating and individualistic values, with Black, Indigenous, and students of colour often having to create their own safe spaces.

“These challenges require a systematic and long-term commitment to confronting heterosexism, cis-sexism, racism, colonial thinking, and white normativity,” read the report.

Fourth-year student Allison Leam said finding mental health resources on campus that understood her East Asian background was hard. While UBCO does have a program that connects students to counsellors from around the world, Leam said it is almost impossible to find in-person services that cater to the needs of racialized students.

“In Asian cultures, mental health is a very touchy topic. Seeking out help is a very difficult and foreign thing to do. So for Asian students to seek out help, and then to find that none of the counsellors are familiar with their own language and cultures, it’s very hard,” said Leam.

Leam, president of the school’s Asian Student Association, said she feels the school doesn’t support its ethnic communities.

“There’s a lack of acknowledgement of the different cultures and backgrounds at UBCO. That includes things like food. When basic things become inaccessible, it’s a huge culture shock,” she said.

Leam isn’t the only one who feels this way. Ahmed Ahmed, vice-president external for the Students’ Union at UBC Okanagan (UBCSUO), agreed that on-campus resources lack diversity.

“My team at the students’ union have noticed this problem, and we’re working right now on a document that will list diverse counsellors in Kelowna,” he said.

But Ahmed acknowledged that the school could do more to support its diverse student population. “I’m an international student from Ghana, and it’s true that we don’t have diverse resources (at UBCO). Hopefully, this document can help students find those resources,” he said.

UBCO committed to decolonization, says provost

In response, UBCO said the school is working to diversify and decolonize the campus. “Kelowna is not a diverse city, and it is one of the least diverse cities in Canada. We have a university that is getting increasingly diverse, so it’s very important that we commit to embracing and upholding its diversity,” said Reed.

Reed said the university is committed to increasing faculty diversification, which will include a plan to retain and support racialized faculty. Currently, the majority of UBCO’s faculty is white, which does not reflect the diversity of its student body.

Reed said she established a program to support deans who want to hire racialized faculty members, along with programs that will help Black, Indigenous and faculty members of colour.

“Faculty representation is the core of the issue. Students want to see more diversity on campus, but that will not happen unless we have a diverse faculty,” said Reed. “Everybody I’ve talked to agreed that we need to recruit and retain faculty who are from diverse backgrounds and make them feel supported.”

Reed said racialized community members need to be represented at the administrative level, and UBCO is trying to include diverse voices in its policymaking. Since most decisions are made through committees, Reed said the school tries to get as much representation on committees as it can; however, this strategy does not always work effectively, especially given UBCO’s small population.

Many racialized students and faculty do not want to take on additional labour for free.

“It is imposing a lot on a small number of people from diverse backgrounds, so we do have to address that gap,” said Reed.

When asked how UBCO plans to include new conversations about race and equity into its strategy, Reed acknowledged decolonization is a process that cannot be done overnight. One way to do that is to listen to racialized leadership at UBCO. Reed acknowledged the diverse leadership team at the UBCSUO, which she says works hard to represent student interests. Notably, president Tashia Kootenayo is the first Indigenous student to lead the students’ union.

The school also recently appointed its first Indigenous associate provost of academic programs, teaching and learning.

Brad Wuetherick was appointed in May to provide strategic leadership, vision and coordination for UBCO’s teaching and learning mission. He will provide anti-racist and decolonization strategies for academic programs on campus, said Reed.

“We have undertaken and participated in a lot of listening sessions. I have initiated a number of listening sessions on campus with students and faculty to understand what the issues are,” said Reed. “We are trying to make sure that these are not one-off discussions. We want to make sure there is change at an institutional level.”

But Reed said it is important to highlight Black, Indigenous and faculty and staff members of colour who are already at UBCO. There are many racialized faculty and staff members at UBCO, and they deserve to be recognized.

“We have a Black biologist. We have racialized engineers. We have a new writer coming from South Africa to join our Creative Studies program. These are the people who will be the role models for our students. These are also the people who will hear their concerns about lack of representations and be able to lead those discussions,” said Reed.


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