Selkirk College Alumnus Secures Prestigious National Award
Michael Graeme’s approach to post-secondary education is that students are an underutilized community asset. The enthusiasm and growing knowledge that learners possess needs to be shared beyond the classroom.
A Selkirk College alumnus who is currently putting finishing touches on his University of Victoria degree, Graeme was recently announced as one of ten 3M National Student Fellowship Award winners. The prestigious award honours undergraduate students in Canada who have demonstrated qualities of outstanding leadership and who embrace a vision where the quality of their educational experience can be enhanced in academia and beyond.
“My vision of education is the creation of a learning environment that connects students with the challenges faced by their communities, ecologies, and the planet as a whole,” says the 26-year-old who graduated from Nelson’s L.V. Rogers in 2010. “Education shouldn't be a process of slowly stretching the slingshot that will send a student flying into the world at the end of their degree, but should balance the theoretical side with the application side throughout one’s studies. It should give students the opportunity to be in the world and get their hands and hearts in the world as they receive the important conceptual background and knowledge needed to do this respectfully and successfully.”
Graeme knows plenty about meshing his education with opportunities outside the traditional classroom environment. Since the outset of his post-secondary journey at Selkirk College’s Castlegar Campus, Graeme has effectively used his time to explore exciting new territory both academically and personally.
An Inspiring Start at Selkirk College
Graeme’s first year of study in the School of University Arts & Sciences was a broad sample where he took entry level courses in Anthropology, Psychology, Philosophy, Creative Writing, English, Spanish and First Nation Studies.
“Being able to sit in a college library that overlooks the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers, to take a dip in that water between classes, to have access to top-notch instructors and nearly every subject of study available without having to leave our small communities, to meet a new friend while hitchhiking to class, to catch fresh tracks at Whitewater on weekends, to get lost in the forest of our backyards equally as much as in our textbooks, to be able to come back to my family home every night… you really can’t beat living and learning in this mountain-cradled gem of BC,” Graeme says of his post-secondary start.
After his first year at Selkirk College, Graeme took a semester off to work and travel. It was while working as a Forestry Technician Assistant in the Slocan Valley that he found his true academic calling when he developed a deeper understanding of the Sinixt First Nation and the injustices that Indigenous people continue to endure.
“I felt trapped in a system that functioned on the perpetuation of injustice, and I felt my position in this system was that of perpetrator—not leader,” he explains. “I used this experience as a way to pin down the direction my academic and leadership journey would take.”
He returned to his studies in 2013 after being accepted into a Selkirk College international partnership with Japan’s Nagoya University of Foreign Studies which landed him in Asia for ten months. After returning to the Castlegar Campus, Graeme was further inspired when he took a Peace Studies class taught by now-retired instructor Myler Wilkinson.
“This class helped me find a way to overcome my guilt, quit evading accountability of the settler relationship I have in this area, and learn how to build and strengthen relationships rather than perpetuate relationships of oppression,” he says. “It is a journey I am still working on, but that was seeded at Selkirk College.”
Graeme started volunteering with Selkirk College’s Indigenous Services department, spearheading a reconciliation and youth outreach project to both honour and help teach youth about the deep history and ongoing legacy of the Sinixt. He completed his studies at Selkirk College as a participant in the Slocan Narrows Archaeology Project field school which facilitates hand-on learning and relationship building with the Sinixt.
Well Prepared for the Next Step
With a thirst for more knowledge and a passion for getting involved, Graeme moved onto the University of Victoria to focus on completing a degree in Anthropology and Environmental Studies.
“When I enrolled at UVic, I jumped into a full course load of five classes,” Graeme says. “Instead of sinking, I realized Selkirk College had taught me how to swim.”
Graeme quickly found success in his new learning environment. After his first year, an Anthropology instructor encouraged him to apply for an undergraduate research award that was started by UVic’s president. He received the award which allowed him to study forestry practices for a semester in southern Ecuador which has South America’s highest rates of deforestation.
Outside of his formal studies, Graeme also became the head of the UVic Environmental Studies Association and actively involved in a food security/waste reduction club called the Community Cabbage. His leadership and efforts in both of these extra-curricular endeavors helped bolster his ability to secure the 3M National Student Fellowship Award.
“This effort didn’t come at the expense of my academic success but rather bolstered it,” Graeme says. “The former is a trend I see too often: students have to sacrifice their GPA to get out and help their communities and the world. Extracurricular volunteer activities have been the places where I have learned to apply my studies, and I believe they should not be ‘extracurricular’ but rather ‘intracurricular’ and post-secondary institutions should be supporting students in accessing these highlights of their campuses.”
Each of the ten winners of the 3M award receives $5,000 and are invited to take part in a collaborative project related to post-secondary education.
Graeme is currently putting the wraps on his undergraduate degree this summer in Lamas, Peru where he is involved in a field course called Indigenous Economies, Ecologies and Spiritualties in the Peruvian High Amazon. The central themes of the course are deforestation, agroforestry and decolonization.
“It couldn’t have been a more appropriate grand finale of my degree,” says Graeme. “I again received full funding to enrol in this study abroad experience, which together with my fully funded studies in Japan and Ecuador goes to show how many funding opportunities are out there for students to pursue their learning out of the classroom and even across the world without going bankrupt.”
It’s a big world and Graeme has used his post-secondary journey to help explore it. As he reflects on his studies to this point, Graeme traces his success back to the West Kootenay.
“So often there is the assumption that we have to go off to the big cities and the big universities to make a big impact in the world, but really big impacts can be created in seemingly small situations and circumstances,” Graeme says. “I learned this in Myler Wilkinson’s Peace Studies class. We learned that working for small transformations is equally as important and they can have impacts that ripple outward to affect the greater world.”
Learn more about the Selkirk College School of University Arts & Sciences.