Guelph, Ont., grad student’s work helps Indigenous students feel welcome on campus

Danielle Nowosad wants people to feel welcome to share experiences with her.

Nowosad said she didn’t always experience that when she started studying science in her undergrad days in Manitoba. Now, the University of Guelph, Ont., grad student has worked to ensure new Indigenous students feel comfortable when they arrive on campus, and that communities where she does in-field research feel like she’s accessible and willing to collaborate.

Nowosad, who is Red River Métis and a grad student who researches Arctic freshwater ecology, lead the development of an Indigenous undergraduate orientation package for students in the College of Biological Science at the University of Guelph. It will be available through the Indigenous Student Services office and it helps students learn about opportunities and Indigenous-specific cultural and learning experiences in and around campus.

“We needed to find a way to get this information to them as soon as they start so there’s a higher chance of them being supported and actually finishing a program,” Nowosad said. “I really hope that it’ll help students have an easier time with post-secondary.”

She said that when she started her undergraduate degree at the University of Winnipeg, there were people who told her she wasn’t smart enough to be in science.

“Thankfully, I did find my professor in a different department that said, ‘No, you do have value and you deserve to be here,'” she said.

“And that’s sort of when I committed myself to actually learning science, of engaging with it properly rather than just skating through my undergrad and just trying to get out as quickly as I could.”

Connection with communities where she works

Each summer, Nowosad travels for field research, and she said she has listened to the communities where she travels. She has heard how some people are frustrated with how other researchers operate.

Danielle Nowosad is shown doing research in Churchill, Man. (Supplied by Danielle Nowosad/University of Winnipeg)

She said it’s been common practice for researchers to fly into remote areas, do their work and leave.

“There’d be no talking with community members, no learning how to respectfully be in that community,” she said.

“And some people still do that today. And I think, listening to the people who are in these communities, they’ve been screaming in the void that they’re so tired of this.”

It leaves people feeling like the researchers don’t care about the community, whereas the people who live there are culturally and spiritually connected to the land.

On the other hand, Nowosad said, some researchers also overdo it and the community may experience something called “research fatigue.”

“Researchers from all over the place, even internationally, will come in and every single one of them wants to engage with every elder and every person in the community, and then it just becomes too much.”

Making research and science accessible

Instead, Nowosad said, there are ways to make your research and science accessible to the people in these communities, and it’s important to offer them a way to take part or learn from her knowledge.

She has spoken at local high schools about freshwater invertebrates and their ecosystems.

This summer, she’ll be holding some youth-oriented events with a local friendship society “just to get kids outside and engaging in Western science a little bit.”

“Not that Western science is the only way of knowing,” she added. “That’s how I was trained. And then maybe in the future I would consider bringing out an elder and knowledge keeper in addition to combine my knowledge with theirs and having kids exposed to multiple ways.”

Nowosad’s work to reach out to communities has been noticed. In 2021, she was recognized with the Kishaadigeh She Who Guards the Lodge Award for her commitment to creating meaningful community connections.

Dr. Nora Casson, Canada research chair in environmental influences on water quality and co-director of the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre, called Nowosad a leader and a role model.

“I have no doubt that the combination of her academic aptitude and exceptional work ethic will serve her well as she continues her career in science,” Casson said in a news release at the time.

Dr. Mazyar Fallah, dean of Guelph’s College of Biological Science, said in an article on the school’s website that “one of the biggest impacts you can have is to drive education.” He pointed to Nowosad’s work and said her advocacy is “really changing the makeup of the place.”

Nowosad said she doesn’t see herself as a role model for others, but by being open and accessible about her work, she hopes others will see that and know it’s possible for them to do the same.

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