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Alumna Sonya Ballantyne, who will be speaking at Indigenous Homecoming. Photo by Mary Vallarta.

Notes from an alumna auntie

Alumna Sonya Ballantyne offers tips for Indigenous UM students

September 8, 2021 — 

My Dad once asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, “Daddy, I want to be a writer, a marine biologist and Bret Hart!”

No one in my family had graduated high school and we didn’t personally know anyone who had gone to university. So my Dad wished me luck on becoming the future WWF champion. Becoming a pro wrestler was equally as likely for me as becoming a writer and a marine biologist.

Leaving home is hard. Leaving home to pursue a path no one you know has ever walked down is harder. I graduated high school and moved to the University College dormitory when I was 17. It was the first time I had moved away from home. I went from being surrounded by Cree people to only knowing one other Cree person who lived on the same floor at University College.

My parents were supportive of me, but they lived four hours away.

Here’s some stuff I wished I knew during that hard first year.

You are not alone.

I made a lot of friends during my time at University College but a lot of these friends came from different backgrounds. No one knew what it was like to be a first-generation university student from a Rez.

For a while, when people mistook me for Japanese or Korean, I wouldn’t correct them because I heard how negatively people spoke about Indigenous people when they didn’t know my ancestry. My partner at the time would often speak negatively about Indigenous people and how I was so much better than “those ones.”

The only other Cree person in my dorm was Richard. Thankfully I had him. Richard was from Pukatawagan and I found myself talking to him a lot after trips home. We bonded over the common problems we faced, such as racism and how much catching up we had to do in university because of our prior education lacking in certain areas. I cried when I got my first university test back and it was a D.

The other common problem we faced was what happened when we went home. I would get teased by friends and family about how I was acting “white” and some people assumed I thought I was better than them. I just wanted something different for me.

When I came back from my first Thanksgiving back home, I spoke to Richard, who had been dealing with the same things when he went home. It felt good not to be alone. I was inspired by his pride in our heritage and found myself correcting people when they mistook me for Japanese. It still took me a while to admit I was from a reserve, however.

People place immense value on being “the first” but the first can be a very lonely place. I was the first in my family to attend university and had no clue how to navigate things alone. With Richard as my friend, we were able to navigate places together.

The Indigenous Student Centre is there for you.

I wish I had known about the Indigenous Student Centre in my first year, as it may have helped me deal with the shame I felt being the only Indigenous person in an intro psychology class.

In the summer between my first and second year, my Grandmother died. I went back to university because I knew if I didn’t, I would never leave home again.

It was different this time, though, as I was without my Grandma, University College and the friends I had made there.

At the time, the Indigenous Student Centre was on the fifth floor of University Centre. It was a row of offices and an old lounge room that we shared with the International Centre (then the International Student Centre). I met Elder Carl Stone at the office and burst into tears about the death of my Grandmother. I think he never said a word and just let me bawl about how I didn’t fit in at the university.

I started hanging out in that lounge and met longtime friends, where we had long discussions about the racism we faced, the hardships about going back home and being different. We also laughed a lot. Until you’ve been away from it, you never know how much you miss the sound of Native women cackling until you find it again.

There’s a scene in one of my favourite movies, A League of Their Own, where the lead character Dottie is quitting baseball because it got too hard. University is hard. Being at a disadvantage because of the lottery of where I grew up made it harder. But after that first D on a test, I did everything I could to turn it around and got an A on the next.

Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own tells Dottie that if baseball wasn’t hard, everyone would do it and it is the difficulty that makes it great. I graduated university and attended the Annual Traditional Graduation Pow Wow with my friends.

A few years later, I was the community guest and speaker at the 30th anniversary Pow Wow. The graduating class took up three bleachers that year. The year I graduated, we could barely fill up one. I’m a public speaker and I usually speak to the audience but that time, I spoke directly to the graduates, students like me who encountered the same hardships I had and overcame them. I told them that they forged a path that made it easier for others to follow them.

And I got to tell them that even though we may be the first, we’re not going to be the last.

Join Dr. Catherine Cook, Vice-President (Indigenous), in conversation with Cree filmmaker and alumna Sonya Ballantyne [BA(Hons.]/08] on Sept. 22 at Indigenous Homecoming. Register today!

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