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Finding Community in Law School: You Belong Here Too.

Law school is often described in the colonial context. It’s a brick and mortar building, with libraries full of books about colonial law, with predominantly non-Indigenous students walking its halls. So where might Indigenous students find community in such a colonial place?

This is my letter to incoming Indigenous students.

When I attended the Dean’s Welcome in 2019, I was smitten with the idea of all the fun activities I could get involved with (I was also excited about attending law school, but let’s be real for a moment - overachievers like myself overcommit to things!). I could try out for Law Show (I don’t sing or dance, and so to spare my colleagues, and the legal profession that trauma, Law Show was off the table for me). I could get involved in Student Legal Services (which I did in both 1L and 2L). Or I could get involved with various other student groups.[1] In all seriousness though, there were some student groups that seemed interesting (such as the Whiskey Appreciation Club or Law and Older), but ultimately none struck my interest as much as the Indigenous Law Students’ Association (“ILSA”).

As an incoming Indigenous law student, I ached to connect with my Indigenous community and ILSA provided an opportunity for me to do just that! The desire to reconnect with my traditional culture had formed during my childhood, however my family had lost a great deal of contact with our traditional culture. I am painfully introverted, but my desire to reconnect with what made me who I am today was the catalyst that encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and join ILSA.

One of ILSA’s first events in 2019 was a Stew & Bannock giveaway for the students and faculty at the UofA’s Faculty of Law. This required preparation and *gasp* social interaction!!! Myself and other ILSA members were invited to the ILSA’s president’s house to assist in the food preparation. I thought about turning my car around multiple times on the drive there because my introverted self just wanted to hide away at home. I even parked a few houses away, to give myself a chance to leave if I didn’t see anyone I recognized.

Then I heard it. Someone called my name! I looked up and a fellow 1L was coming towards me with a great big smile on her face: Anita Cardinal-Stewart. Instantly, my insecurities melted away and I stepped out of my vehicle. That evening was one of the best experiences I had in my 1L year because I formulated friendships that I have come to cherish.

In my 2L year of law school when things were extremely difficult for me, I was able to reach out to my ILSA friends as a source of wisdom, inspiration, and community. They understood what I was struggling with because on some level they had also struggled with it. They seemed to know what a fellow Indigenous person needed. They understood the challenges of attending law school as an Indigenous student. Most importantly, they never judged me. Not once.

As an example, friends like Anita are rare gems. They are the type of people who will keep your feet grounded, while encouraging you to let your dreams and aspirations soar. She is the reason I ran and was elected as ILSA’s co-president for my 3L year (2021-2022). She encouraged me to collaborate with her on various projects, and while some were not related to school, many were, and those projects helped to grow the ILSA membership significantly since 2019.

Many students (whether Indigenous or not) struggle with imposter-syndrome.[2] I think on many levels, Indigenous students may struggle more with imposter syndrome than the general law student, because law school wasn’t built for us.[3] Despite this, my law school experience has been greatly shaped by the community ILSA has provided.

What is the point of me sharing this part of my story with you? It’s to remind you, dear reader, that despite what imposter syndrome may tell you, you belong here. Law school may not have been made for Indigenous people, but we are shaping it!

Until next time,

Amanda & Team ReconciliACTION

[1] UAlberta Law, Student Groups, online: UAlberta Law

[2] Note: Imposter Syndrome is an intrusive feeling of non-belonging. See Melanie Schwartz, "Retaining Our Best: Imposter Syndrome, Cultural Safety, Complex Lives and Indigenous Student Experiences of Law School" (2018) 28:2 Legal Educ Rev 1.

[3] Ibid.

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