By Shannon Boklaschuk
For the last five years, Tiffany Benn has supported Indigenous students starting out on their academic journeys at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).
Benn, a post-secondary student from the Birdtail Sioux First Nation, is a peer mentor with USask’s Indigenous Student Achievement Pathways (ISAP) program. Housed in the College of Arts and Science, ISAP welcomes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students to university with academically grounded programming that builds confidence, knowledge, and skills, while connecting students to one another and to the campus community.
“ISAP is such an inclusive program for Indigenous students, and everyone who is involved wants nothing more than student success,” Benn said. “They are there for any questions or guidance you may need. If you have a chance to be a part of ISAP, do it—because the staff, the programs, classes, and students are all so amazing.”
Benn’s own journey at USask began in 2013. She joined ISAP while she was a student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, which she earned in 2017. She appreciated many aspects of the ISAP program, including the opportunity to make friends, stay connected to her culture, meet with Elders, and learn about teachings and medicines during weekly Learning Community (LC) gatherings.
“I was interested in ISAP because I was interested in being in a shared community with other first-year Indigenous students so I did not feel alone,” she said.
A mother of four children, Benn applied to become an ISAP peer mentor in her second year so that she could help other Indigenous students succeed. Although Benn faced struggles, and wanted to give up at times, she pushed on and finished her program—and describes receiving her BA degree as “the most amazing feeling ever.”
Now a student in social work, Benn has continued mentoring with ISAP.
“I wanted to be able to share my experiences with other students and be a role model and peer for others,” she said.
Earlier this month, Benn co-presented a poster about her peer mentorship experiences with ISAP alongside ISAP team lead Dr. Sandy Bonny (PhD). The presentation was part of the national online gathering of the Indigenous Mentorship Network Program (IMNP).
For Benn, taking part in a national conference was a “very nerve wracking,” but gratifying, endeavour.
“I was originally going to say no to doing it but changed my mind because that is a chance in a lifetime and I was asked to do it,” she said. “When I did do the presentation, I was super nervous—but it was such a great experience. I could not thank Dr. Sandy Bonny enough for asking me to be a part of it and I am so happy I did it.”
Bonny said the presentation marked Benn’s first conference presentation, and she did “a fantastic job joining the academic community in dialogue as she shared her story.” While many analyses of peer mentorship tend to focus on metrics, trying to evaluate and quantify the impact of particular programs, Bonny and Benn shared something different.
“We took a narrative approach instead, presenting Tiffany’s journey from mentee to mentor as an informed qualitative reflection of our program’s approach to championing a community for learning, and then reflected on that experience through the lens of Indigenous concepts of achievement shared by language keepers—many of which foreground community and relational learning over individual accomplishments,” said Bonny. “It was well received, and Tiffany got an online clapping ovation.”
ISAP peer mentors actively collaborate on ISAP’s co-curricular programming. The peer mentors often lead the staff team in “fun new directions” as they plan and design activities to build community, connect campus experience with Indigenous perspectives and priorities, and invite alumni, Elders, and role-model speakers for intergenerational dialogue with the ISAP LC students, said Bonny.
“Indigenous people are underrepresented among USask staff and faculty,” noted Bonny. “That’s where Indigenous peer mentors are so important; they’ve been there, know the ropes, and can speak to incoming Indigenous students from a place of earned empathy and connection. Being a peer mentor is a rewarding experience, too. The opportunity to give back to new students helps the peer mentors recognize their own accomplishments and reflect on assets for learning that they can share. It’s very much a two-way relationship, and I think it fosters our peer mentor’s self-understanding, leadership skills, and confidence.”
Bonny described Benn as a genuinely curious, compassionate, and people-focused person. Benn is always interested in learning from other people’s experiences and is among the first to volunteer when ISAP hosts events such as discussion panels and role-model speakers, Bonny added.
“She’s been a great bridge for new students into the College of Arts and Science. She’s an extremely welcoming and friendly face, with lived experience of our academic programs, and of excelling in post-secondary as a mature student and a student mother,” said Bonny. “When she shares advice with students, they know that it is authentic and informed by her own path.”