Grad fuses Indigenous health, geography into big plan

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First in her family to attend university right out of high school, Serena Mendizabal is aiming no lower than being a world-changer.

“I’ve always had big dreams. My parents have always wanted to make sure they’ve helped support those dreams. I’ve wanted to be a teacher, then wanted to be photographer – and now I’m on a completely different route.”

On June 19, Mendizabal will join more than 300,000 Western alumni living around the world as a newly minted graduate and member of the Western Class of 2020.

Fueled by what she has learned from a host of Indigenous and non-Indigenous mentors and leaders at Western, she will be starting her master’s degree in Geography under the supervision of professor Diana Lewis in the fall.

“I’m interested in Indigenous health and looking at the relationship between our health and the environment and how interwoven they are within one another,” she said.

Mendizabal grew up in Brantford, with parents Charity Neuert of Cayuga Nation and Ariel Mendizabal from Panama. Her younger and older brothers excel at solving mechanical and technological puzzles, but Serena always needed to know how people and nature worked.

When she first arrived at Western, she was inspired by the sophs who guided incoming students throughout their school year – so much so she became one in successive years.

“It’s difficult to be thrown into an environment of hundreds of other students. I didn’t know where my room was on the first day,” she said. “Then you have a buddy or two who are a year older, and they have your back. Now today, I’m still best friends with these people. It’s those long-lasting relationships that I’ve really gained.”

Studying Media and Information Technology in first year gave her the skills she needed to navigate through university, such as critical thinking. An Indigenous media course then led her into Indigenous Studies, where she could link both her passions.

“I adore Indigenous Studies – already within the last couple of years I’ve seen the class size grow – and the professors all hold a very special place in my heart. The Indigenous and settler professors all care so much about the content they’re teaching. Education goes further than just the classroom, especially in this program,” she said.

“It’s so good to know there’s so many people out there who also care about the same things I do, especially when it comes to my own identity. As much as these programs helped me learn, they also helped me grow into who I am as a person.”

She also became part of a core group that started a student club focused on renewable energy and environmental sustainability. The club has grown to a membership of about 70, with participation from a wide range of faculties and programs.

A highlight of her time at Western has been working with a team, led by Information and Media Studies librarian Marni Harrington, in digitizing, archiving and transcribing Smoke Signals, a long-running radio show hosted by Indigenous elders Mary Lou and Dan Smoke on campus radio, CHRW.

“It brings me so much joy working on it with them – I get so happy. I look up to them as mentors, elders and just amazing people who want to continuously share Indigenous stories and make sure the next generation hears them.”

That work has, in turn, sparked her passion for learning and preserving Indigenous stories and ways of being among the Six Nations, near Brantford.

“My studies positioned me to understand where I need to do my work, and that was with my own people in some context.”

Her research project, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), has a holistic environmental and health bent. “We’re focusing on how Indigenous knowledge systems have the potential to lead to reconciliation with the land, the air, the water and ourselves – using renewable energy as the platform.”

She is excited to start her master’s studies this fall. Her mother is returning to school as well, getting a master’s degree in social work at Laurier University. Together, they dream of how it can all fuse together.

“I have big-picture things I want to do. I definitely want to bring back something to my community. I’ve never really told anyone this, but my mom and I have dreams of making an eco-youth home – not a shelter, but bringing people back to the land in a green-powered home.”