VIU's Aboriginal Students Celebrate Achievements at Graduation Ceremony

Desiree Lawson, from Heiltsuk Nation and graduating from VIU’s Bachelor of Natural Resource Protection program, pauses to allow her family to take a photo during the Aboriginal Graduation Ceremony held earlier this month.

April 28, 2017 - 11:00am

More than 185 Aboriginal students received degrees, diplomas and certificates from VIU in 2016-17

Hugs, smiles and a few happy tears were the order of the day as Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Aboriginal students celebrated the successful completion of various degree, diploma and certificate programs earlier this month.

There are more than 1,400 students who identify as Aboriginal studying at VIU – roughly 10 per cent of the total student population – and Services for Aboriginal Students has organized a separate recognition ceremony for them for nearly a dozen years. In 2016-17, more than 185 students who self-identify as Aboriginal graduated from degree, diploma and certificate programs, and several dozen students came to the Aboriginal Graduation Ceremony in the Malaspina Theatre on VIU’s Nanaimo Campus.

At the ceremony, each student receives a gift in recognition of their achievement. Those receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees receive either a blanket if they are male or a wrap shawl if they are female. Métis students receiving a degree get a sash hand-woven by Métis community member Val Beauchamp. Students receiving diplomas or certificates receive a carved paddle.

“This is one of our biggest, most important days of the year,” Dale Hunt, an Educational Counsellor with Services for Aboriginal Students, told the grads and the audience packed with family, friends and VIU faculty and staff there to support the students. “Your journey to get to this day has not been an easy one, but it’s going to pay off for you all. You all have done a great job balancing two worlds – not only are you VIU students, you are also representatives of your communities. It’s a delicate balance to walk those two worlds.”

Students also heard from valedictorians Tasha Brooks, graduating from the Master of Business Administration program, and Troy Barnes, who finished his Bachelor of Arts in First Nations Studies and History this year.

Brooks began her speech by re-living some of her struggles to get through first a Bachelor of Business Administration and then the MBA program.

“Besides the MBA program, the first year was the hardest of my life,” she recalled. “I locked myself in my room for six hours a day studying accounting, occasionally coming out to find some food cooked by my mother. Like any irrational student, I went to the mall to see Santa that year and said to him, ‘If I get a C+ in accounting I will never ask for anything again!’ Well, I got a B-, and I kept pressing forward. My teachers stood beside me and gently behind me if I fell, and I felt they truly wanted me to succeed.”

Brooks also acknowledged her family and the sacrifices they made that led to her being able to go to University.

“For many of us, we are the first generation of our family to go to post-secondary,” she said. “My education is not just for me, it is a community asset to be shared. I am here to create meaningful change for our people. The goal to build a better life for your kids and grandkids and community – that’s what I learned from my parents’ example.”

Barnes, a member of the Klahoose Nation with Homalco roots as well, described his university journey as difficult, but also empowering. As a 'Su'luqw'a' Community Cousin, he has supported others on their educational journeys and played a key role in strengthening Aboriginal students’ sense of community on campus.

“Like many of my fellow graduates here today, I left a community behind that was essentially my comfort zone,” said Barnes. “I eventually had to come to terms with getting over my fear of public speaking. The biggest reason behind my fear was not feeling smart enough to be in university. Now that I have found my voice, it’s safe to say, it’s hard to shut me up!”

Dr. Ralph Nilson, VIU President and Vice-Chancellor, was also at the event to congratulate the graduates and remind them to stay in touch.

“It brings great joy to my heart to see the kind of commitments and outcomes that we see here today,” he said. After congratulating the grads, he asked them to acknowledge the friends and family in the theatre. “Without family support, this just doesn’t happen. We are stronger when our heart as well as our mind is engaged.”

To learn more about Aboriginal education and services at VIU, visit



Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6559 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: | T: @VIUNews

Tags: Student Success