June 3, 2021

Class of 2021: Indigiqueer advocacy and overcoming adversity define grad student’s experience

Alyjah Neil draws from their personal history to create a safer place for all
FSW Grad Student Alyjah Neil
Faculty of Social Work graduate student Alyjah Neil. Courtesy Alyjah Neil

In their first semester as an undergrad, Alyjah Neil heard the words that became a guiding statement for their journey as a Faculty of Social Work student: “Your healing is the greatest gift you will ever bring to your work.’

“I've held on to that for the last seven years,” says Neil, explaining that the remark came from a guest presenter, an Indigenous elder who would serendipitously become Neil’s practicum adviser years later. “If I’m focusing on my healing, I can make space for anyone's healing. That was a defining moment: knowing that I could do this, too."

Neil, who is currently completing their Master of Social Work-Trauma Specialization program, has certainly faced adversity in their lifetime, including experiencing the fallout of addiction and abuse at a young age. Despite their track record as a multiple-award-winning student, life in a post-secondary environment failed to shield them from more harsh realities. While studying at the University of Calgary, Neil contended with houselessness on more than one occasion and also coped with the deaths of many friends and family.

Managing funerals and assignments

“I’ve never had a winter semester where I didn't lose somebody. I think that’s why I work so hard, because I know I’m not the only Indigenous student managing funerals and assignments. I know I’m not. I have Indigenous friends, and we're all managing funerals and assignments."

Healing for Neil, who is trans and Cree-Métis, has largely been about embracing their identities and connecting with community, including meeting family members from Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan for the first time in the interim between their BSW and MSW programs. 

I'm not a spokesperson for everyone, but I know that I’m fulfilling my role in my community, and that's a powerful gift.

"I did a lot of reconnecting — meeting with elders — in my undergrad and learning about Indigenous ways of knowing,” they say. “And, then, in my graduate degree, having this other group of people that has my back, people that look like me and understand me and we share the same history … [It] was really a different experience, a different level of connection. Having them cheer me on to my grad degree was really powerful.”

Education, too, has provided a powerful balm, albeit one in which they have had to confront a historically antagonist power relationship. 

Create safer space for Indigenous and queer students

“Educational institutions were designed to eradicate Indigenous People. Social work was designed to eradicate Indigenous People in Canada. And I’m in the social work education program. There’s a lot of complexity and paradox there,” says Neil. “By coming into this program my intention was, ‘I want to find home in a place that is not designed for me.’”

Establishing that place for themselves has become the basis of their practice. Neil recently completed a journal article on “how to be” an Indigiqueer person within the context of academia. They have also researched ways to support Indigenous and queer social workers and provided guidance to agencies working with two-spirit youth. Their primary focus, however, is on making post-secondary a safer space for Indigenous and queer students.

“It gives me purpose and it makes me know that I’m doing the role my community needs me to do for Indigenous people and Indigenous-queer people to heal.”

UCalgary convocation

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

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