The welcome upswing was one of the first signs that it was high time to push forward with new programming.
“Students are looking for us, and we aren’t really having a push in terms of recruitment,” said Robert Innes, associate professor and graduate chair of Indigenous studies. “Students are finding us and coming to us, and so we figured this is the time. The time is right for our department to grow.”
That growth is taking the form of a new PhD program, which was passed unanimously by University Council in January. The initiative is the first of its kind for the U of S Indigenous studies department, and sets the institution apart as one of only a small handful of universities in North America to offer similar doctorates.
“We see the PhD program as being fundamental to the growth of Indigenous studies as a discipline,” Innes said. “There are two, maybe three PhD programs in the United States. In Canada, Trent University has had a PhD program for a number of years, and that was the only one in Canada until the University of Manitoba’s Department of Native Studies started offering one a few years ago and the Faculty of Native Studies at Alberta just started their new PhD program as well.”
The step forward is not the first time that the Indigenous studies department has accepted PhD candidates, but rather the first time that it has had the number of faculty and the resources necessary to launch a dedicated support system for their research.
In previous years, the department has taken on special case doctoral students. However, since accepting special cases includes a more intensive application process and a significant increase in paperwork, Innes is confident the new program will be more flexible for incoming scholars.
“It’s a lot more involved,” he said of the special case program. “The idea is that the departments that have the special case option may not have the capacity for a full program, so they want to make sure that students coming in have every- thing lined up. This really frees up students.”
The department has just admitted its first three PhD students, who will begin in September a five-year period of study, comprehensive exams, proposals and the intensive research typical of most doctoral programs. But what’s really exciting to Innes isn’t only what those students will be learning, but what they’ll eventually give back to the campus.
“Within the university, the department is well situated to have a leading role in intellectual conversations about Indigenous issues,” he said. “PhD students are really the mechanism or the bread and butter of these new conversations that can emerge. Our students so far—and we expect this to continue—are asking new questions, thinking about things in different ways, and that will also influence the faculty. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where faculty influence students and vice versa.”
Looking forward, Innes is excited to start active recruitment for future years, bringing in fresh faces and developing an ongoing influx of bright young minds to learn and build a community together.
“What this new program allows us to do is have a cohort,” he said. “We’ve never had three PhD students come in at the same time. They’ll act as support for each other, and then support the students that come in the next year. That’s a major development.”