When Konwasé:ti Mariah Kirby enrolled in university – a little apprehensive but mostly enthused – she didn’t know what the next six years leading up to her graduation would look like.
“I’d say it’s a huge milestone for me. I still can’t believe that I graduated,” said Kirby, who now holds a bachelor’s degree in First Peoples Studies from Concordia University.
“I’ve always been really dedicated to who I am as an Onkwehón:we person. I take my culture and language and just overall history pretty seriously. I’ve always been so interested in that,” said Kirby.
Although she was excited to add to her knowledge, choosing that major was a bit daunting, and it came with its fair share of challenges, especially in the first year.
“Some of the classes were hitting home because we learned a lot about the Indian Act, the residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, all kinds of stuff like that, which is hard to really listen to and voice your opinion on things when you’re in class.”
She was glad to see non-Native students in the classroom. “It’s important that people around us learn our history as well,” she said.
Aside from managing her workload, Kirby juggled another life-changing responsibility: motherhood. “I’ve had two children throughout my studies, which I’m very proud of. I never gave up.”
She expressed immense gratitude for her parents and her husband, Cougar Kirby, for their support. “I honestly couldn’t have done it without them.… It’s just like, endless love and support throughout my whole academics,” she said.
Outside of her home, Kirby also found a source of support, this time within Concordia itself, at the Otsenhákta Student Centre.
“I’m not too much of a city girl, so going to a big university like that all by myself was kind of scary. It was a big change for me. So to have that centre guided towards Indigenous students was amazing for me.”
Mariah St. Germain, Indigenous student success coordinator at the Otsenhákta Student Centre, sees it as providing “a home away from home” for the students.
“It really establishes a sense of pride, and an Indigenous identity. And I think that it just gives a safe space for our students to express that,” said St. Germain.
“She has a strong sense of self, and she brings that forward compassionately when engaging in conversations with other people, and also is compassionate with herself,” St. Germain said of Kirby.
“It was amazing to see her at her graduation ceremony with her family, having so much pride in who she is not only as an academic, but also as an Indigenous person,” added St. Germain.
The Otsenhakta graduation took place on June 2, followed by the spring convocation on June 20.
One of her most memorable moments traces back to November 2021, when she gave birth to her son – not to mention that it was during the height of the pandemic. “I think that’s the biggest core memory for me. I was like, wow, I actually did this. I still stuck to it. Even though I gave birth to an eight-pound baby, I still dedicated myself,” she said.
“I never give myself enough credit,” she said. “I’m very, very proud of myself. And that’s something that I learned throughout those six years.”
In her program, Kirby also had the opportunity to learn alongside students from other nations and communities, which she described as an “eye-opening” experience. Through it all, she discovered a new-found dedication to her culture, namely by attending ceremonies with her husband and children.
“I’m really trying to guide myself through that, making sure my kids have that because I didn’t have that growing up, learning the language, and going to ceremonies, going to Longhouse, and meeting other people that I haven’t met that are just so caring and loving. So it’s really important for me that I stick to that,” said Kirby.
Working with youth or in social work are options she’s considering, but for now, Kirby’s focus is her family and dedicating her time to her children.
She hopes her journey might motivate others in the community and beyond to trust themselves with the goals they’ve set out.
“It’s not impossible. It may feel like that, but it’s not impossible.”
This article was originally published in print on Friday, June 30, in issue 32.26 of The Eastern Door.