Ryan Brooks was born and raised in a rural area. With deep roots in Norfolk County where he grew up and on Manitoulin Island which has always fed his soul, Brooks aims to practise family medicine in a place that feels like home.
“There’s a different sense of community and connection in rural areas that I hope to have again,” said Brooks, an Ojibwe member of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory.
Brooks has also experienced a strong sense of community at Western, where he will be among more than 20 students participating in a special graduation ceremony for Indigenous students on April 1.
It will be the first such in-person graduation ceremony since 2019, with the pandemic having halted plans in 2020 and with last year’s ceremony a virtual event.
“It’s a day of celebration. They’ve faced so many barriers because of the pandemic,” said Ashley Kewayosh Samuel, program co-ordinator with the Western Indigenous Student Centre.
Each graduate will have a turn in the spotlight, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as they receive special stoles – white for undergraduate degrees, silver for master’s, and gold for PhDs – with embroidery specific to Western and to the Indigenous Student Centre, with its representation of a strong tree atop a turtle underlined by a purple wampum belt.
They will be honoured with video greetings from Myrna Kicknosway, one of the elders who have helped support and guide Indigenous students, and songs and drumming from London-based Eagle Flight Singers.
To comply with COVID protocols, graduating students will celebrate at specific times one after another, and the only non-Western guests will be those invited by the graduates. But while they will not gather en masse to celebrate this year, graduates will have an opportunity to share video messages with people who cannot attend.
Of equal importance, they will be feted in person by family and friends who have helped them along their journey.
“There are quite a few graduating students who are bringing six to eight family and friends. There are some whose families are far away, and so we will be their cheerleaders,” Kewayosh Samuel said.
Med school journey
Brooks has been supported especially by his fiancée Chelsea, his mother Patti, and stepfather Jason.
His has been an eight-year journey – from the first day of classes through to the final stretch of medical school at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry – and one he wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
His interest in the sciences in high school led to courses at Western in anatomy, physiology and Indigenous health and, ultimately, to medical school.
A third-year clinical placement in Wallaceburg – a community in Chatham-Kent, Ont., that borders on Walpole Island First Nation – was pivotal in his decision to pursue rural medicine.
He isn’t certain yet where the Canadian Resident Matching Service will assign his residency but he loves the idea of rural family medicine, which traditionally has few doctors, all of them practising a wide range of health care.
“Western is known to have a great student experience and at Schulich Medicine especially, the experience I’ve had and the connections I’ve made here have provided a very good sense of community.”
During his undergraduate years at Western, Brooks was involved in Indigenous circles of support and, during medical school, he was part of an informal but tight-knit medical-student network called “A Tribe called Med” (a play on the band, A Tribe Called Red, now called The Halluci Nation). This support network allowed Indigenous students in medicine to mentor and support each other through their educational journey.
It will be bittersweet to leave Western, Brooks said.
While he would like to see a more formalized network of support for Indigenous students throughout medical school, “I really feel like I have seen progress in these eight years. Western is getting more Indigenous representation in upper administration and there’s the Office of Indigenous Initiatives, which didn’t exist before,” Brooks said.
The Indigenous Student Centre, he noted, has grown in strength and importance for the community. “It’s a space to go where there are friendly faces of people who know your name and continue to support you. Not only do they know your name, they know you as a person and know your values.”
Kewayosh Samuel said Friday’s ceremony celebrates Indigenous people from across all faculties, regardless of how much or how little they’ve connected themselves with Indigenous services or events on campus.
Graduates will have an opportunity to wear their stoles at the convocation ceremonies planned this spring for all new Western graduates.
Western continues to plan for in-person convocation events in June, subject to public health and safety guidance.
The deadline for students to apply to graduate is April 30. More information about spring convocation plans will be forthcoming soon, along with details of plans to celebrate the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 who celebrated their graduations virtually.
Community and communities
The graduating Indigenous students study at Western’s main campus and at Western’s three affiliate university colleges – Brescia, Huron and King’s – with degrees and majors ranging from anthropology to health sciences to sociology
Their home communities span from coast to coast to coast, Kewayosh Samuel said:
Batchewana First Nations; Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory; Métis Nation of Ontario; Walpole Island First Nations; Garden River First Nation; Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation; Aamjiwnaang First Nation; Aamjiwnaang First Nation; Chippewas of the Thames First Nation; Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation; Whitefish River First Nation; Neyaashiinigmiing and Six Nations of the Grand River; Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory; Kettle & Stoney Point First Nation; Oneida Nation of the Thames; Eelunaapeewi Lahkeewiit (Delaware Nation); Munsee-Delaware Nation; Caldwell First Nation; and Oneida Nation of the Thames.