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This article connects relevant literature with the authors’ personal reflections to examine the components of a supportive relationship between an Aboriginal graduate student and a non-Aboriginal faculty supervisor. In post-secondary environments, Aboriginal graduate students have particular parameters to deal with. Socio-cultural factors may include that “[m]any Aboriginal students do not see themselves or their culture reflected in the typical Canadian university setting” (Holmes, 2006). Aboriginal graduate students can also experience specific challenges with regard to formal mentorship opportunities, especially when Aboriginal faculty is not readily available to serve as mentors.

The purpose of this article is to put forward how an Aboriginal graduate student and a non-Aboriginal university faculty were able to work successfully together. The rationale for this article is that small steps may be a part of the answer to a larger issue. That is, this example may add to the literature regarding Aboriginal graduate student success.

This article focuses on the relationship between an Aboriginal student (Master of Counselling) and a non-Aboriginal professor at the University of Lethbridge (Faculty of Education). Danica, an Aboriginal student, is of mixed-blood ancestry. She has European ancestry on her father’s side and Cree ancestry from Peguis First Nation on her mother’s side. Due to the impacts of colonization, she was born and raised off-reserve and disconnected from her community and cultural identity. Since her early adolescence, she has been on a path of discovering who she is as an Aboriginal woman and is proud of her heritage. John, the non-Aboriginal faculty supervisor, is an immigrant from Denmark who is interested in and would like to consider himself an ally of Aboriginal concerns and issues. Over the course of an assigned research assistantship, the pair examined what was required and necessary for their healthy, productive, and creative working relationship. Each party recorded weekly journal entries over a two-month period to reflect on the relationship and meaningful elements worth discussing with regards to their emerging partnership. The decision to record journal entries was made to honour their emerging working partnership. At the time of deciding to record journal entries, the backgrounds of one another were not known. This unfolded as the relationship deepened. It must be admitted that a rationale for the recording of journal entries was somewhat serendipitous in that when it was decided to begin journaling, there was only a sense that something of interest might emerge.

For the purpose of this article, the term “Aboriginal” will be used to describe First Nations (status and non-status), Inuit, and Métis people (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, 2012). The authors also acknowledge the use of the term ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Indigenous’ by people of other countries who claim original residence and a harmonious relationship with their environment. The authors of this article understand that Aboriginal people and cultures are diverse and the ideas shared here represent the experience of one Aboriginal graduate student and one non-Aboriginal faculty member.

The theoretical framework that the authors are working from starts with an acknowledgement that this document is intended to be an examination of a journey to success of an Aboriginal graduate student and non-Aboriginal faculty member through a mutual examination of their own journey. This study, in a small way, fits within the larger idea that, “[h]igher education offers great potential for reconciliation and a renewed relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada” (Universities Canada, 2015). As Pidgeon and Hardy Cox (2002) stated, “[r]esearchers must be sensitive to their own approach to research to ensure that inherent assumptions and guiding principles of research methodology do not increase the divide of understanding and learning from Aboriginal peoples to address collectively Aboriginal concerns and issues” (p. 97). From the beginning of the partnership, journaling, as demonstrated by the quote below, was used to help each party explore his/her experience:

I just spoke with my graduate assistantship coordinator on the phone. This is the third time we have spoken over the phone and so far this has been our only method of communication other than email. Today we spoke about changing the focus of our work. Based on some of the preliminary work done, we decided to focus on what makes a good relationship between graduate student assistants and the faculty coordinators. Surprisingly, I’m not as disappointed as I thought I would be about the change of plans. I am quite happy to explore a new option that fits better for us as I can directly relate to the topic area. Our discussions so far have been very respectful and the positive encouragement and feedback about my work to this point has helped me stay on top of the work and motivated.

D. Lee, personal communication, September 30, 2015

Aboriginal Students and Graduate Studies

The experiences of Aboriginal students in post-secondary environments can be unique. Hutchinson, Mushquash, and Donaldson (2008) shared that the research specific to Aboriginal graduate students and their success is limited. Aboriginal students are often one of few in graduate programs or perhaps the only Aboriginal student in the entire faculty (Pidgeon, Archibald, & Hawkey, 2014). In social work programs, Ives, Aitken, Loft, and Phillips (2007) stated that there continues to be an underrepresentation of Indigenous students in both undergraduate and graduate programs. This suggests that there may be a need for cultural practices within post-baccalaureate programs to honour the experiences of Aboriginal students. Some of the strategies that Hutchinson et al. (2008) suggested to enhance the success of Aboriginal graduate students were: knowing where one has come from and one’s identity (both as an Aboriginal person and as a student) as well as getting to know faculty and their approaches to working with students. This journey mirrored much of what Hutchinson et al. (2008) suggested. The weekly communication allowed a slow yet continual sharing of one another’s identity as well as an understanding of how each other worked effectively. Pidgeon et al. (2014) shared that self-accountability, by regular reflection on progress towards individual goals, was important to enhancing Aboriginal graduate student success. Accountability to each other and the project was an important element of this successful relationship.

In terms of mentorship with university faculty, Pidgeon et al. (2014) shared that many Aboriginal graduate students do not have formal mentorship opportunities from Indigenous faculty members or allies supportive of Indigenous ways and/or knowledge. It was suggested that culturally relevant policies, approaches, and strategies be in place within institutions in order to retain Aboriginal graduate students (Pidgeon et al., 2014). Pidgeon et al. (2014) continued that Aboriginal graduate students clearly identified the role of relationships with faculty and other students as vital to their positive experiences in graduate studies. The following quote demonstrates the level of respect early on in this emerging relationship:

When I think back to our first conversation, I am reminded of the feelings of relief that I experienced when I spoke with John on a human-to-human level. It was not how I had imagined or built up the experience to be. All of our interactions have been based on a level of mutual respect, not a hierarchy like I had anticipated. Some of the basic elements of this respectful relationship include having mutual understandings of the tasks to be completed, the open environment for questions, and an acknowledgement of schedules and commitments. This experience helped me understand that this dynamic is different than a “normal” student-teacher relationship.

D. Lee, personal communication, October 6, 2015

Understanding Roles

Often relationships are built on a foundation of understanding roles and clarifying responsibilities. University faculty can fulfill different roles in relationships with graduate students, two of which include employer and agent of socialization (Lechuga, 2011). Davidson and Foster-Johnson (2001) described mentoring relationships as involving work related activities, skill development, and social or emotional elements on a formal or informal basis. When faculty members are in the role of employer or supervisor, clear understandings are beneficial in relation to expected responsibilities of graduate students in order for the students to work under minimal supervision. In positive supervisor-graduate assistant relationships, Lechuga, (2011) stated that student independence, as well as student contributions, are valued.

It must be considered, however, that relationships between faculty and students involve varying power dynamics. This can go beyond job titles to include the dynamics of gender, race, or other cultural affiliations. Although power dynamics are evident in faculty-student relationships, the way in which either party chooses to acknowledge these dynamics can strengthen the relationship. Respect and openness for the learning that can take place for either supervisor or student makes space for each party to receive gifts from the other as revealed by the reflection below:

I was hesitant to apply [for the grad assistantship] because I was worried about what would be expected and whether or not my abilities would suffice. I was worried about what it might be like to walk in that world and work with an academic. At times I was worried about whether or not my skills would be up to standard or if I even had the right vocabulary to hold an intelligent conversation over the phone. It is an interesting shift from sitting in a classroom and taking in lectures to working on a joint project together, sharing ideas, and providing each other with feedback. I was worried about the shift in power dynamics and I did not entirely know what to expect.

D. Lee, personal communication, October 3, 2015

Building Relationship

In some cultural teachings, people have relationships with everything around them and those relationships need nourishment and respect. Pidgeon et al. (2014) shared that often the power of relationships to family, community, nations, and geographic locations, are noted by Aboriginal students as key elements of success and perseverance in education. Many of the same teachings can apply to graduate assistants and faculty supervisors. Once the foundational elements of getting to know each other are established, opportunities can be made for each party to share more about who he/she is. Davidson and Foster-Johnson (2001) shared “o mentor well, it is also necessary to know one’s protégé” (p. 565). Sharing one’s cultural identity and affiliations can be considered a risk for some Aboriginal students based on previous, perhaps multigenerational, experiences of discrimination and racism. Some students are open about their cultures, and others choose to keep their identity private. Having the opportunity to decide when and how to broach the topic of culture is important for anyone considering disclosing a personal part of his/herself. Although this can be considered a risk for some students, it can also create opportunities for support and further relationship building with faculty.

By having knowledge of the cultural identity of the graduate student, mentors are welcomed to understand and explore values, behaviours, and attitudes that may contribute to the relationship (Davidson & Foster-Johnson, 2001). As respect, trust, and openness build between faculty member and student, it becomes easier to share information with the other party knowing that it will be held in a good way. Hutchinson et al. (2008) shared “having a faculty member familiar with your community will allow a greater shared understanding of your background” (p. 276). Opening up the discussion around cultural identities can allow for self-disclosure of personal experiences as the following excerpt suggests:

I like that Danica has been sharing with me some important parts of her. This shows a bravery that I respect. She has indicated that she has an Aboriginal background and is proud of her heritage. I am pleased as there is a sense that she trusts me enough to share this important part of her.

J. Poulsen, personal communication, October 15, 2015

In reference to mentoring relationships between two parties of different cultural backgrounds, Davidson and Foster-Johnson (2001) described the importance of self-awareness and knowledge of one’s own feelings with regards to racial and ethnic issues. Sharing personal information about cultural identities can place either party in a vulnerable place, especially when the relationship is still forming. A great level of trust is placed in the hands of the person now holding this information and the stories shared. Each party has a choice to make about how to go forward in the relationship knowing each new piece of information; and for the authors, this encouraged a degree of self-reflection and sharing as illustrated by the next two quotes:

Our conversation today was bright and fruitful again. I told the story of my experience at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa earlier this year. I was lucky enough to attend the opening ceremonies and experienced Justice Murray Sinclair’s introduction at the Truth and Reconciliation finale in Ottawa last June 2015 and the subsequent standing ovation. I was blessed to be part of this enormous celebration, a celebration that I felt extended beyond Justice Sinclair and his important work. The celebration included his committee, the individuals who had testified across Canada, the First Nations community, and Canada itself. The peak of the experience was the ten-minute standing ovation for Justice Sinclair that culminated in the entire room dancing and clapping to the rhythm established by a group of drummers. We danced to acknowledge the power and growth of understanding, plus we danced to celebrate the work and important revelations that this commission had brought to light.

J. Poulsen, personal communication, October 20, 2015

Because I am a counselling student, I’ve been thinking a lot about how respectful relationships between graduate assistants and faculty supervisors mirror, in a way, the therapeutic relationships with clients. Although the work that John and I are doing together is different than a therapeutic relationship, there are many similar elements and factors that help build that sense of safety. From a foundational point of view, the therapeutic relationship is strengthened when clients know about their rights from the outset of therapy through an informed consent process. This is similar to when John and I completed the contract to work together. We were both on the same page with our responsibilities to one another and each week we negotiated that arrangement. Another element to building rapport in counselling settings that parallels relationship building in a faculty-student relationship is getting to know each other in casual ways. John and I had the chance to meet over a coffee and talk about a few things that ventured outside of the realm of our project focus. This allowed us to get to know each other a little better. Although a counsellor wouldn’t meet with a client in a setting like that, it represents that there are alternative ways to build rapport and invest in the relationship. John has been very positive, encouraging, and optimistic about the work. I am hoping that this is building a sense of safety for both us of so that when it comes time for more constructive feedback there is a net and history of genuine validation and care.

D. Lee, personal communication, October 27, 2015

Knowledge Transfer

All mentoring or supervisory relationships involve a degree of knowledge transfer. Pidgeon et al. (2014) shared that mentoring relationships are reflective of the intergenerational approaches to teaching as demonstrated in Indigenous cultures. Poonwassie and Charter (2001) shared “[r]ole modeling, at either an individual or group level, is a powerful means of teaching and of helping others incorporate traditional values through transmission or traditional knowledge” (p.69). Lechuga (2011) explained that faculty members view their role as contributing to the development of graduate students, at times in a master-apprentice relationship, with a respect for student autonomy in order to strategically encourage development. Austin (2002) shared a similar idea that students learn from observing and interacting with their faculty supervisors or mentors. These views of knowledge transfer and learning from observing are deeply rooted in Aboriginal culture. Overmars (2010) explained that modeling and storytelling was how children were traditionally taught and “education was conducted in a way that was integrated with daily life and emphasized relationships” (p. 91). Hart (2007) described that the transmission of knowledge from previous generations, as guided by Elders, to future generations is not unlike the training of an apprentice.

There is a level of safety and sense of security that must be present in order for students to take the next step and this is encouraged by the fundamental elements of the relationship mentioned above. Pidgeon et al. (2014) reported that the supportive elements of an Aboriginal graduate student-mentoring program fostered a sense of belonging for students and gave power to inter-generational relationships and learning. At times, cultural differences regarding values around knowledge transfer and creation can become barriers for Aboriginal students. Some of the cultural barriers identified for Aboriginal students completing graduate degrees were “accepted methods to inform knowledge creation” and “knowledge transfer between the student and the faculty” (Hutchinson et al., 2008, p. 270). With this knowledge, it is important that the faculty supervisor and graduate assistant have a mutual understanding about how knowledge transfer will work within the relationship and how knowledge is understood within the realms of the project. The reflection below shares a story about knowledge transfer as demonstrated through a cultural experience:

I had the opportunity to attend a pow wow recently. I sat behind a very powerful and strong drum group. I love sitting close to the drums and feeling the vibrations through my entire body. It is a beautiful experience. While watching this drum group, I was able to witness traditional teaching and learning practices. The young men around this drum circle were in their mid-twenties. There were a couple empty chairs amongst them and once in a while a few younger boys would join in with them. The younger boys would come and go as they pleased and joined in with the older drummers when they wanted to. As the young boys joined in, I noticed that one of the older drummers pointed to a young boy when it came time for the lead singing part of the song. The young boy looked back up at the older drummer for reassurance and the older drummer nodded. That was all the young boy needed for confirmation and away he went. This boy took on the lead singing role and shared a beautiful song with the world around him.

This story represents a certain form of mentorship which has been passed on for generations upon generations: the keepers of the knowledge spending time with inheritors of knowledge. This is the way that some traditional practices and teachings were passed on from generation to generation. When I think about mentorship in the sense of graduate assistant and faculty member, there are similar practices that take place in this knowledge transfer. In terms of my work with John, he has assigned tasks based on a certain level of confidence he had in my work. As we get to know each other better and he is more familiar with my abilities, he will be able to assign work that he feels I can handle while slightly pushing me out of my comfort zone. As a graduate student, I can trust that process and understand that I will be challenged within a particular zone of what is reasonable.

D. Lee, personal communication, October 20, 2015


During the initial stages of building relationship, respect for each other allowed the relationship to move forward. Respect for this pair was seated in a strong admiration for one another especially in the areas of intelligence, courage, and thoughtfulness:

In thinking about respect and what it means to me, I am brought back to respect as a very essential cultural teaching in the Aboriginal world. It has many meanings for our people and seems to be at the base of all relationships, both with other humans as well as the world around us. Respect in this sense means that we are all equal in the wheel or circle. This idea acknowledges that we are each at different stages around the wheel based on where we are at in our lives and what experiences we have had. In terms of being humans with unique gifts to offer, we are equal. Having this understanding is very important in the academic world. It means that although there is a teacher and student relationship, there is both something to give and receive for each party. Respect in a cultural view to me also means that I deeply honour the fact that John has lots of teachings to offer me. As a mentee of his, I respect these gifts that he is sharing with me and use this knowledge in a good way. His willingness to share knowledge and offer his time as a mentor is invaluable for my growth and learning. This creates an environment of deep respect. When I think about what it means to be respected, I think about how even though I am at a different stage in my learning, I will still have contributions to offer. To be respected means to be included and collaborated with.

D. Lee, personal communication, October 3, 2015

As explained in the above entry in reference to relationships, the Medicine Wheel teachings include all stages of life and the connections to each other (Poonwassie & Charter, 2001). Poonwassie and Charter (2001) explained that “[t]hese [Medicine Wheel] concepts are symbolic cyclical interpretations of life and universal connectedness which provides a means for individuals to make sense of their world” (p. 65). Hart (2010) explained that all life is considered equal in the Wheel, thus all life is respected in a reciprocal manner.

Respect from faculty has been identified as a key element of graduate assistant success (Brown-Wright, Dubick, & Newman, 1997). Pidgeon et al. (2014) referenced the following values as critical as either a support or an impediment to Aboriginal students transitioning to graduate studies: respect, responsibility, relevance, and relationships. Hutchinson et al. (2008) wrote “teachings on respect of diverse ways of knowing and coming to know are vital to realizing respect for Indigenous people and should be incorporated in all academic disciplines” (p. 274).

An opportunity to explore respect, relationships, and how cultural identities contribute to one’s understanding of the world, creates space for discussion of values that may differ between parties. Absolon (2010) wrote “we must respect who we are, what we know and where we come from” (p. 81). Knowing one another’s stories can prevent future misunderstandings. In reference to mentoring relationships with non-mainstream graduate students, including Native American students, Davidson and Foster-Johnson (2001) noted that core value differences and similarities may be important to explore in early stages of the relationship. In cross-cultural mentoring or supervising situations, it is essential that both parties hold a respect for the uniqueness associated with each person’s culture in order to understand how and why tasks are completed in a certain way along with a level of flexibility and adaptability (Davidson & Foster-Johnson, 2001).

Davidson and Foster-Johnson (2001) also stated that in some situations, in order to appreciate the opinions, behaviours, and attitudes of mentors or protégés, time and patience in investigating one another’s culture is key. This allows the pair to revise any expectations with regards to behaviour (professionally or personally) and priorities while simultaneously allowing space for each party to self-reflect on any habits or characteristics of both personal culture and graduate school culture (Davidson & Foster-Johnson, 2001).

The review of the pertinent literature informed this pair’s interpersonal interactions. Davidson and Foster-Johnson’s (2001) statement regarding “time and patience” resonated with them both. The next sessions after reading about the need for time and patience had more pauses in the conversation as both made sure that there was time and space to speak and listen.

Faculty and students must also navigate the level of closeness or personal boundaries with each other and at times, cultural norms may be different in this regard between both parties (Lechuga, 2011). The expectation that faculty and students should have clear boundaries with regards to relationships is one that is commonly held by many individuals and universities. Although this is typically ethically in place for the safety of either party, there are times when cultural considerations must be made and these boundaries must be explored. In sharing a personal experience of getting to know students outside of the classroom, Faith (2007) wrote that through sharing “our personal lives, a deep bond was established, a bond that transcended our differences” (p. 10). The space created for this type of sharing allowed for a new level of depth to develop in this relationship based on the foundation of great respect for one another.


Along with the theme of respect, feedback focused on performance and personal growth emerged in the literature as an important element of effective mentoring and supervisory relationships. Feedback in any type of relationship can be challenging, thus it is important that it comes from a foundation of respect. Austin (2002) shared that graduate students reported a desire for explicit feedback from faculty regarding their progress in their various roles associated with being a graduate student. It was also shared that positive feedback, along with respectful gestures, was identified as an influence of motivation by graduate students (Christensen & Menzel, 1998, as cited in Lechuga, 2011). Similarly, international students identified a lack of feedback as a potential source of conflict between themselves and their faculty supervisors (Adrian-Taylor, Noels, & Tischler, 2007). Not only is feedback required from faculty to students regarding student performance, faculty also appreciate receiving feedback from their mentees with reference to their performance as a mentor and what may be necessary to address in order to make positive changes (Cesa & Fraser, 1989).

A culture of reciprocal and respectful feedback allows for each party to contribute to the work in a meaningful way and show support for one another. Johnson (2013) explained “reflecting on how teachings and learning experiences build upon each other, helps to guide Indigenous understanding about how each past event, experience, thought, dream, conversation, ceremony and prayer is necessary, and purposeful” (p. 82-83). In the authors’ case, weekly feedback through reviewing one another’s journal entries and openly discussing, not only the work, but also the relationship as it developed was profound. Journaling and weekly discussions provided for opportunities for accountability to each other, oneself, and the work.

Journaling became the basis for internal feedback about the developing relationship and an opportunity to process the experience. Faith (2007) shared that the practice of reflective journaling can facilitate both the “learning and unlearning” (p. 10) in the development as an educator as it allows space to explore incongruent beliefs, examine self-talk, and question commonly held beliefs about what academia “should” be. The experience of reflection provided through the journaling exercise contributed to the authors’ growing relationship as is evidenced in the following journal entries:

Feedback is probably best delivered in a trusting atmosphere. If there is trust then feedback is more easily accepted. There is probably a correlation between trust and ease of feedback; the greater the trust between individuals then the easier it is to give constructive feedback. Constructive feedback can have a negative tone as it is often dealing with a situation where a person has not met the standards. If there is trust then suggestions for improvement are more often met with an open heart and willingness to change. Trust suggests that the person receiving the suggestions believes the person giving the suggestions have their best interests in mind.

J. Poulsen, personal communication, October 7, 2015

In terms of giving feedback, this is in area that I struggle with. Giving feedback to someone who is in a supervisory role seems awkward to me. I am not sure what is expected in this regard and I am respectful of power dynamics that are present in each relationship. I am cautious to not step on someone’s toes in this respect. I’m realizing that it is important for me to hear about how the work is standing up against expectations in order to know where I am at and what the expectations actually are. In thinking about myself and my own personality, I tend to be generally unsure of myself and lack confidence in my work. What I have noticed about myself is that I generally work better after receiving some sort of feedback, both positive and constructive. This helps me know that I am on the right track with regards to what is expected of me, but it also seems to provide me with motivation to continue or improve.

D. Lee, personal communication, October 10, 2015


Ultimately positive and supportive relationships, or mentorships, between university faculty and graduate students can be profound and meaningful to the overall experience for both parties. For Aboriginal graduate students, the experience of having a supportive mentor or supervisor can be culturally significant. For non-Aboriginal faculty having an Aboriginal graduate student can allow for self-reflection, growth, and an opportunity to learn something new. The authors found that their relationship required a degree of safety rooted in foundations of respect and feedback in order for them to thrive in their roles. The stories shared above, as captured through journal entries, outlined the importance of the necessary elements of meaningful and healthy work relationships. Creating a relationship on these foundations can provide reciprocal learning opportunities for both faculty and student that transcend typical supervisory relationships by honouring the power of one another’s experience and story.