Kaitlin Debicki, PhD in English and Cultural Studies, is the valedictorian for the Fall 2017 Convocation Ceremony for the faculties of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Business

November 16, 2017

Meet PhD Kaitlin Debicki, valedictorian at Fall 2017 Convocation

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What would you say to your first year you? Meet Kaitlin Debicki, valedictorian at the November 16 Convocation for the Faculties of Business, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

1. Name: Kaitlin Debicki

2. Hometown:
I’m from Six Nations of the Grand River, but was adopted out of my community as an infant and grew up in Ancaster. I spent a couple years living in Vancouver as well, before moving home for graduate school.

3. Degree/Major:
I’ve just completed my doctorate in the English and Cultural Studies department, where I was given considerable support and opportunity to specialize in Indigenous literatures and cultures.

4. What made you choose McMaster for your higher education career?
McMaster has one of the longest standing Indigenous Studies programs in the country, and there are a lot of Indigenous scholars who’ve worked tirelessly over the past twenty-five years to make space and validate Indigenous Knowledge within the institution. It was also really important to me to work with an Indigenous supervisor, so when Dr. Rick Monture agreed to take me on as a student, the decision was easy.

5. What will you be doing after graduation or see yourself doing?
I will be teaching at McMaster as a sessional lecturer and working at Six Nations Polytechnic in Ohsweken. My dream job has always been to be a writer, so I’m also looking forward to turning my dissertation into a book. Plus, I have some side projects on the go, such as helping to develop Indigenous curriculum at the elementary school level. And of course, I will be spending lots of time with my daughter, Wren, who is nearly two.

6. What would you say or advice to your first year self?
There’s love in your future, and a beautiful community of belonging. Keep being honest and open; try to hold onto your faith in people and in yourself.

7. How has McMaster shaped the person you are today?
I came to McMaster as an undergraduate because of the Indigenous Studies Program. As an adoptee, I wanted to learn where I came from, who my people were, who I was. Before meeting the people in Indigenous Studies, before being exposed to our stories and histories and languages, I had no sense of myself other than an all-pervasive sense of loss. Over the years I have continued along this path, gathering a sense of my community and our ways of thinking and being. It is ironic I suppose, that this gathering of myself has been made possible by a colonial institution, but I found access to knowledge within the university that I didn’t know how to access any other way. Instrumental to this process, of course, has been those Indigenous folks at Mac who have helped me to make further and deeper connections to the people and places and practices that define me as Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk nation). I truly hope to have the opportunity to reciprocate such guidance and kindness for future generations.

8. What events did you enjoy the most at McMaster/Hamilton city?
I really enjoyed attending events with Indigenous guest speakers – Richard Wagamese, Richard Van Camp, Audra Simpson, Leanne Simpson, Eden Robinson, Kent Monkman – these are just some of the fantastic scholars and artists who’ve been brought in by English and Cultural Studies, the Indigenous Studies Department, and McMaster.

9. If you could change anything in the past or in your time at McMaster, what would it be?
For many of my years as a PhD student at McMaster I was overwhelmed by what we might call service work, or volunteer labour. These were events, committees, talks, projects, groups, and efforts for structural change that required the involvement of Indigenous scholars and students. I was flattered to be invited to participate in so many incredible opportunities, but quickly realized how draining this work could be and how it took away from time that might have gone towards completing my degree. So if I could change anything it would be to have more Indigenous graduate students (especially PhD students!) and more Indigenous
faculty. There’s too much expected of too few here, for work that often goes unseen, unacknowledged, and unrewarded. Perhaps the work of change-making that Indigenous students and faculty give so much time and energy to could be recognized in an official capacity, in an advancement and promotion capacity.

10. Who was your support for succeeding in higher education?
I could not have finished my degree without the support of my family. My partner who has encouraged and loved me both through my rants and raves, my spouts of depression, and my joys and successes. My parents who have never let me stop believing in myself. My friends and colleagues who get me, who drink, eat, laugh, and cry with me. Who sat on the other end of the phone while I tried to explain a chapter, an essay, a conference presentation and helped me see that yes, what I was saying did make sense. My committee – doctors Rick Monture, Daniel Coleman, and Amber Dean – are some of the most incredible human beings I know. I also received huge support from folks at the Indigenous Knowledge Centre, like Rick Hill, and my teachers in the Ogwehoweh Language Diploma Program. I have also felt supported by the lands that I call home, the territories of the Dish with One Spoon treaty. Many times I have sought solace walking through the Dundas Valley, along Spencer Creek, and on the trails of Cootes Paradise. I also received considerable financial support from McMaster’s School of Graduate Studies through the Harvey Longboat Scholarship.

11. How have you changed over the course of your University life?
Well that’s an impossible question to answer. I’ve changed like I think all human beings do by just living their lives. It took me five years to complete my PhD. In that time I learned new social skills that helped me make life-long friendships, I began to learn my native language, I became involved in many projects within my Indigenous community and began to really feel a sense of belonging to that community. In that time, I also lost my father and gave birth to my daughter. Oh, and I wrote a 250 page document that earned me a doctorate degree. Change is inevitable, it’s the only guarantee. I’m still learning to adapt to change. Maybe that’s what’s changed over the course of my university life, I’m better able to adapt to change, to accept what I must and to push back when I can.

12. How have you grown as a person throughout your time at McMaster?
I’m a little less self-absorbed now, but I think that has more to do with maturity than with education (although, they’re related). I find I’m better able to focus my energy on thinking of others, on taking care of the people and places in my life. I was so subsumed, when I began my phd, by what others thought of me. I wanted to seem as smart, as well read, articulate, and as interesting as everybody else. Somewhere along the line, those thoughts began to take up less and less space in my head and that freed up a lot of time and energy for actually doing things that matter.

13. What do you envision yourself doing five years from now?
My people are from here. I’m rooted here. So in five years I hope that I’ll be teaching and researching and writing in the territories of the Dish with One Spoon. I hope I’ll be further along my journey of learning my native language and teaching my daughter to speak as well.

14. What is your definition of success?
For me, success is being cared for and loved by the people, places, and beings who you love and care for. I imagine it as a daily sense of calm centeredness. In my case, success will also mean making a difference in the world, giving of myself in a way that makes things better. I’d like to leave things a little better than when I found them, for my daughter and for her children after her, and for their children too.

15. How would your life be different if you didn’t go to McMaster?
I came back to Hamilton from Toronto and Vancouver before that because I wanted to do my PhD here. My partner gave up his dream job in Vancouver so that I could pursue my dreams here. We also decided to return here to where we both have family so we could start our own. If I hadn’t gone to McMaster perhaps we wouldn’t have come back. If we hadn’t have come back I wouldn’t have had those last few years with my dad before he passed, and maybe we wouldn’t have our daughter. I certainly wouldn’t have the inspiring relationships that I do and I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to learn my language and reconnect to Six Nations. Any of these changes would have left me an incomplete person. So though I miss the vast bigness of Vancouver’s coasts and mountains and towering trees, I’m so grateful McMaster accepted me and helped me along this path of homecoming.

Kaitlin's valedictorian address will be available online in December.