Welcome to the Kéxwusm-áyakn Student Centre

Behind the beautifully carved wooden door of Room 196 in the Library Building lies a real gem of the Capilano University North Vancouver campus, the Kéxwusm-áyakn Student Centre. At just five years young, the Centre has seen phenomenal growth both physically and in the hearts of the students who frequent its quarters. Offering a welcoming and comfortable site to learn and socialize, the centre truly exemplifies the close community spirit of CapU. Here, First Nations Adviser David Kirk describes all that the Centre has to offer, making it obvious why the space is beloved by so many students and faculty members.

Students gather at the Kéxwusm-áyakn Centre to study. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim
In your own words, what is the significance of the Kéxwusm-áyakn Student Centre?

The significance of the Kéxwusm-áyakn student centre is it had created a place for our Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to gather, to share food, to share knowledge, to share teachings. And it has created a space for studying, a space to socialize, a space to get support and a place that our Indigenous students feel comfortable and welcomed.

What does the Centre provide for students?

So the Centre provides a place to come and study. We have computers and we have printing for our students. It’s a place to come and socialize, hangout, support each other. We run student success workshops in here, we run peer mentoring, we run our in-residence Elders program, we try to have food three days a week for a hot lunch. So, it’s really, it’s a social place, but it’s also a place to come and study and support each other.

What can students who have never been to the Centre before expect from their visit?

That we welcome whoever comes in the door with open arms. And that’s one of the things we’ve heard in the last five years since we’ve been open is people say – whether it’s employees, students, admin – [they] all say this is probably one of the most warm and welcoming spaces on campus.

What do you hope students take away from each visit to the Centre?

We hope that they take away, whether it’s learning about each other or sharing food, is that they know that they’re supported here in the centre and it’s a very non-judgmental space and we just support all students in their educational journey, whatever that looks like.

As you mentioned, there are in-residence Elders at the Centre for students to speak with which is of course very special – how would you describe this opportunity for students?

So about seven years ago we started creating our in-resident Elders program. It serves multiple purposes, the first purpose is to provide that cultural Indigenous teaching from the elders, to not only our Indigenous students but our non-Indigenous students. And for many of our Indigenous students, they come from remote communities and they don’t have an Elder that is close to them here, so it provides that Elder.

When you’re an Indigenous person and you’re removed from your community, it can be lonely. So, this provides that warm, welcoming, Elder support. And the Elders love it, you know, we love our Elders and they love coming here. So, it’s been seven years. We have Elders here three days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then this fall we’re looking at expanding that from Mondays to Thursdays.

A small ceremony was held at the First Nations Student Centre to welcome the new Aboriginal Learners Librarian Kim Minkus on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. Photos by Tae Hoon Kim

Our Elders are from, to be respectful of the two territories, the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh. So, two Elders at the moment, and at the moment we have two male Elders but we’re looking at finding a female Elder to start in the fall too.

How have you seen this opportunity of meeting with the Elders impact the students – what does it mean for them to get to have these conversations?

For our non-Indigenous students – I’ll start with that – it’s a way for them to learn some of the teachings. And I think over the last seven years the number of students that have come by and met – we hate to say interviewed – but met with the Elders, visited with them, asked questions for research papers. We’ve had documentary students do a documentary on one of the Elders, they’ve also done a documentary on the Kéxwusm-áyakn. So those are the things that have helped with our non-Inidgenous students. And again, with our Indigenous students, it’s creating that presence of [family]. We’ve created a home away from home for our students… Family to us in Indigenous communities is really important. So that’s also what this space has created, a sense of family. We tease each other, we support each other, we laugh, we cry. All those range of emotions are supported here.

What was the hope for the Centre in terms of community building on campus, and how has it succeeded?

The hope was to create a space – and we got direction from the Elders, from community, from students – is that we did not want this space to be an exclusive Indigenous only space, we wanted a space where we could break those barriers down, learn from each other, share culture, share teaching, share food. Because in order to move forward in the process of reconciliation we all need to do this together. This September will be our sixth year that we’re dedicating a full week to truth and reconciliation, and on average we have 800 to 1,000 students coming through our events that week. That’s really key; many of those events are held here in the centre, and then some of the events are too large for the space here so we use the Bosa Theatre and stuff. But it’s bringing that awareness to the campus community.

Like you said, you also host cultural workshops at the Centre. What do those entail?

So we’ve done numerous workshops for both students and employees. We’ve done cedar hat weaving workshops, we’ve done drum making workshops, we’ve done moccasin making, cedar wristbands, we’ve done reconciliation through art by a really well known Cree artist, George Littlechild. It’s really about ensuring that our culture and our art and all those things are kept alive, because for 100 years our culture and our language and connection to the land was taken away and we were being assimilated by the government through residential schools. So, it’s ensuring we have a space to share those teachings and to learn and to make sure that those teachings such as cedar weaving, which Coast Salish people have done for thousands of years, is kept alive. Or drum making, you know, because for us the drum is key to the work we do. It’s making sure that those cultural teachings are kept alive… We also [have] children from the Children’s centre visit, and learn songs and visit with the Elders.

Photo by Tae Hoon Kim
Is there anything you would like to see coming out of the centre in the future?

In this past year we have expanded to create a quiet study area and some offices as our department has grown. I see the bigger future as, in the five years since we built the Kéxwusm-áyakn Student Centre we actually outgrew it and that was one of the reasons we expanded. So, I kind of go, ‘where are we going to be in 10 years? Are we going to need to take over even more space?’ We just hope that we will continue to be a focal point for the whole campus community, which is what we have created in these five years.

What this space means to us

Business administration students, Rose Williams and Vanessa Lewis, took some time out of their studies in the newly opened quiet study section of the Kéxwusm-áyakn Centre to speak to what the space means to them.

Williams: The centre is sort of like a home away from home for me. It’s a place where I can meet fellow First Nations students – hear their experiences, share my experiences. And we kind of help each other out with classes, or any sort of issues that we may experience here on the campus or [share] what’s really great about the campus. It’s also pretty great too because we have an Elder in residence who comes in, so we can sit and talk to them, maybe get some advice on life’s little issues that may come into your life. So that’s a really great opportunity. Plus, the addition of this new study space is really nice, it’s not like you’re having to fight for a spot in the library or anywhere else.

Lewis: I probably would repeat what Rose said, really. That’s what it is for me here. It’s a comfortable space where you can come and meet new people, or meet friends that you’ve known for a long time. We help each other with homework. We help each other with instructors, which ones kind of teach which way and if it helps, we share those things with each other. I really like the support from the staff here, David and Joel, and Clay when he was here. They are all very helpful. It’s just a quiet space to come and set up all your stuff and just work for hours.

Williams: And if you want they have the other area where you can kind of just kick back and relax and socialize with everyone. It’s always nice to look out a window into the forest and the sun and all that. And then we have an English tutor, a math tutor – we have other services that come in here to the room which is really helpful. I’m a more mature student, so I think if there were younger students just coming fresh out of high school, maybe moving from a really remote area to come here for school, they really wouldn’t know how to reach out and access those services – because everyone wants to succeed in post secondary, we want to do better not only for ourselves, but for our communities.

Elder Latash Maurice Nahanee leads a drum circle as part of Truth and Reconciliation Week on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. Photo by Tae Hoon Kim.

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