Morgan Phillips graduated from the Department of Integrated Studies in Education in 2019. She is currently a Research Coordinator for Network Environment for Indigenous Health Research (NEIHR).
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
I was encouraged by different people and other Indigenous students. Because I’ve been part of the Kahnawake Schools Diabetes Prevention Project here in the community since 1994, I was exposed to research for a long time and so I was encouraged by that group to get my Bachelor’s. And then when I finished my Bachelors in Anthropology, and Master’s in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Concordia University, I was encouraged by them to just keep going on. At that time there weren’t any Native Studies programs yet. So I decided to go into Education at McGill.
Q: What is your current position?
I’m the Research Coordinator for the Network Environments for Indigenous Health Research—the Quebec-based one. We recently got a 3.5 million dollar grant and one of the objectives is to build capacity amongst Indigenous scholars and in our partner academic institutions.
Q: Did you ever consider doing a more academic position after your PhD?
I’m fifty-seven years old, and because of my age, I just found that it was too hard. I decided right from the beginning I didn’t want to go for a tenured professor position. I prefer research and working with communities.
Q: When you were working on your PhD, what kind of financial support did you receive?
I’m from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake so we have a Kahnawake Education Center where all of our education funding comes from. Our post-secondary education is paid for and we also get a student allowance. On top of that, I applied for and was awarded scholarships and fellowships. I also always worked part-time throughout my time in university.
Q: What would you say that you value most about your time in graduate school?
I valued being with other Indigenous students and Indigenous staff. At Concordia, there’s an Aboriginal Student Resource Center and at McGill, we have the First Peoples House.
Q: Would you have found any type of mentorship helpful prior to starting the program?
I remember when I started at Concordia, I was freaked out by going to the library. I didn’t know what to do. I remember bumping into a friend in the stairwell of the library and I just burst out crying because I was very shy to ask for help. Indigenous people are shy to just ask anybody. After a while, as a student, you learn that anybody who asks, they’re going to help you.
Since I started in 2004 until now, a lot has changed. You know, like there’s more support for Indigenous students, almost like holding our hand when we get there. We learn for example, how to use the library and how to get counseling services. There are computers, there’s food there—it’s like we have family there. So it’s a lot different. In 2004, the centers were smaller but now those programs are only getting better. I was part of different groups, like the health curriculum committee where we planned curriculum for the medical students at McGill. Right now I’m part of the Indigenous McGill network session. We have some workshops, and there are opportunities to share. Every couple of weeks, we talk about issues and try to make improvements.
Q: What were your biggest challenges during the PhD?
I think more of my challenges came from the Bachelor’s and Master’s level. As an Indigenous student, sometimes you’re the only Indigenous student in a classroom. So I took this class, it was a Native studies class and it was taught by a non-Indigenous person. And the first thing the teacher would always ask is “How many Indigenous students are in the class?” And there’s usually only one or two. “Oh great! We got an expert in here and you’re going to help us.” So this is put on our shoulders and it puts us on the spot. Oftentimes we end up arguing with them, while they are trying to preach to us, for example, the Bering Strait theory. But it’s really changing now.
There’s this one experience I had in my anthropology class in advanced research methodology where we learned about Ishi, one of the last surviving people of his nation. One of the anthropologists put him in a museum and they toured him around like he was a specimen. People would come and gawk at him. Learning about this really affected me; it was a really sad story. The students in the class were laughing at him because they found it funny that he was put in a museum. I didn’t find it funny and I got very upset. I was just crying. The teacher didn’t know how to resolve that situation.
Q: What have been your biggest challenges since you graduated?
I haven’t had any problems since I graduated because there are so many opportunities for Indigenous scholars right now that I’ll always have work and I’ll never have to worry about not having work.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on your PhD?
I would say be yourself. Sometimes I find I have an accent and I’m not smart enough. But all along people always said to be yourself. Don’t worry about that stuff. You’re very smart.
Also find like-minded Indigenous researchers or mentors. Go to your student resource centers, make friends there and build capacity with each other. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Q: Is there something you wish you knew before you started your PhD?
I wish I was more communicative and more proactive with my supervisor because he was kind of at arm’s length. Oftentimes I found myself alone. I don’t know if I was afraid to ask him for help, but I wish I would have. Maybe that would be an advice to incoming students—to really choose your supervisor wisely and to really work more. I didn’t work closely enough with my supervisor. I figured I would just do things on my own. I wish I didn’t do that.
Q: Lastly, is there something else that you would like to add?
In light of the truth and reconciliation era that we’re in, and decolonizing and indigenizing the programs, we’ve really progressed in the past five to ten years. So it’s really looking very promising for Indigenous students—we’ve gotten more support. There are more Indigenous resources and centers opening at different colleges and universities. There’s a really nice momentum being built and it makes us feel good. There’s more recognition and more spaces are being carved out for Indigenous students. What we want to see right now is more hiring of Indigenous faculty and more Indigenous staff. It’s happening, so we have an eye on it. We do whatever we can to move that forward.
Many thanks to Morgan for sharing her PhD narrative!
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.