A Royal Roads University alumna and now-employee is recognizing and rewarding Black excellence at the school, and aims to help Black students feel more welcome and included.
Donneil McNab says that when she first moved to Canada, she experienced a culture shock that she hadn’t prepared for.
Originally from Jamaica, she moved to Victoria to pursue a Master of Arts in Tourism Management at Royal Roads University. Having done her undergraduate studies in the Bahamas, where she studied alongside a diverse cohort, she says she chose Canada for her master’s degree expecting she’d find that diversity here too.
But when she arrived, she was shocked to see it wasn’t what she imagined.
“Within the first two or three weeks [of being here] I only saw maybe two Black people except for my sister, who is also Black,” McNab says. “It was a bit of a shock to me because I was thinking — if it’s a diverse country, where are all of the other Black folks?”
McNab says there were places she visited like the mall or grocery store where she realized there weren’t many people who looked like her around. She also couldn’t find many products on shelves specific to her culture and ethnicity.
Now, as an employee of Royal Roads University, McNab is taking steps to help Black students feel seen and included through the newly established Award for Diversity and Community Building. It’s an annual $1,000 award to recognize students of Afro-heritage descent who serve their communities through volunteering, applied scholarship or leadership.
Celebrating Black excellence and Black pride
To McNab, Black pride is all about taking up space.
“It’s just being genuinely thrilled when I see other Black people excelling in all areas and being very resilient, even when they’re othered because of the colour of their skin,” McNab says.
Moving to Canada from a country with a predominantly Black population was hard for McNab at first, she says. She felt out of place and quickly had to learn how to adjust her lifestyle. There was also a worry associated with how she was perceived by others. When she applied for jobs but didn’t hear back, she wondered if it had to do with racial bias. And if she finally got a job, she wondered if she was hired because of tokenism or as a diversity hire.
“You start thinking about these things in the many spaces that you go through and you have to really struggle and try extra hard to be confident in yourself,” McNab says.
Eventually, she says was able to connect with more Black folks through school and also learned about and embraced other cultures. She says meeting new people has been one of the best experiences she’s had thus far in Canada.
While studying at Royal Roads University, McNab says she received a monetary award and began to reflect on it. She felt a drive and what she calls a “natural disposition” to want to help people who look like her. She also noticed there wasn’t a specific award for people of Afro-heritage descent at the university.
McNab says she comes from a family where she was taught to always give back, regardless of how little or how much she has. After reflecting on her own award, she decided to create one to celebrate Black excellence.
“I think that extra push just came from seeing many instances where people who are Black are typically disadvantaged, regardless of their capabilities,” McNab says. “So this was meant to be my way to contribute to the ongoing fight for Black liberation and also just to help even the playing field.”
Helping others excel
The monetary award is currently self-funded by McNab. She says that while she doesn’t have a lot to offer, she considers herself to be in a place of privilege compared to other Black folks and wants to use her privilege to help them excel.
Students can use the $1,000 award for tuition or other aspects of their life, McNab says. She notes that for international students, finances can be difficult as they’re only allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours per week in Canada. But students from Canada can also qualify for the award, and may need the financial help too.
“Being a Black person, you’re most likely going to be disadvantaged compared to other folks,” McNab says. “So it’s just really providing that opportunity [and] re-instills in people that ‘you are worthy, you are Black excellence, and you deserve a spot at the table.’”
McNab says she’s hoping the award gives students a confidence boost and acknowledges that they truly demonstrate Black excellence.
How can schools and workplaces support BIPOC?
McNab says she often hears from people that racism doesn’t exist in Canada or that Black people aren’t “othered” or disadvantaged in any way. She says she can’t tell if people are in denial or if there’s genuine ignorance to the issues BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) face.
Whether it’s ignorance or denial, McNab says she thinks it’s important to bring awareness to issues BIPOC have to deal with. She hopes that by doing so, it allows people to reflect on what other folks might go through and use their privilege to be an ally and help out.
In the context of supporting students at school, McNab suggests educational institutions take a look at what resources are available first.
“Specific populations are sometimes going to require other resources,” McNab says. “For example, one thing that constantly pops up within the circles that I’m in is the fact that a lot of institutions don’t have counsellors who are BIPOC. And it’s very important for somebody who undergoes trauma to have someone who relates to them in that way or understands a bit more.”
She says institutions and workplaces should look at what’s available specifically for disadvantaged or marginalized populations and assess what they’re doing to even the playing field. The same goes for people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community as well, she says.
“Just know that diversity is more than how many Black students or staff members you have,” she says. “It goes way beyond that … and I think organizations are still struggling with that piece.”