A Long Journey To School: Larissa States Guides Youth To Higher Ed
Finding her path took Larissa States from coast to coast of what is now known as Canada, but along the way she found her people. States is Anishinaabe and a member of Long Lake #58 First Nation, a small community in Northern Ontario. She grew up in Richmond, BC, and moved to Montreal at 18 to attend McGill University, where she now works as an Indigenous community outreach associate.
States works with community partners, with communities and their schools, and with students to support existing education initiatives or to co-collaborate and co-create new ones. States has always had a heart for community, working at the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal as a frontline worker. That love has guided her career path, along with her passion for Indigenous youth and guiding access to post secondary opportunities for them.
"I think Indigenous youth are the best. I like to find ways that I can support them and provide opportunity and make some space."
Online learning was the path States took to complete her high school, hoping to escape bullying in grade 11 and reduce social pressures on herself. She graduated early and applied to McGill for fun, not expecting to get in.. but she did! Bouncing around between programs initially, States finally settled on political science, minoring in Indigenous Studies.
"I can't say don't be scared because you will be scared and that's okay."
After leaving home to study in another province alongside her dad, States has advice for youth contemplating doing the same. “It can be scary, but it's also a really exciting time because it's the only time in your life that you're going to be focusing a hundred percent on you, you have control over what you're doing. It's exciting to be the person who makes the decisions for your life,” she counselled.
She often faced the challenge of being the only Indigenous student in the class and the heightened sense of responsibility to educate others about Indigenous experiences in school and at work. "It's a daily learning of having to educate people, but doing so with grace and with love as we've always done. That weight can sometimes feel really heavy," she explained.
In the face of those emotionally draining experiences, States is an advocate for personal boundaries and self-care. “There's sometimes where it just feels like you're expected to speak for every single Indigenous person ever,” she commiserated. She answers so many questions and her message to her younger self is about asking the questions herself.
“It takes a lot of courage to ask a question, because you're showing that you're not sure. And that can sometimes put you in quite a vulnerable place, but that second of vulnerability leads to security. The security that comes with the answer is definitely worth the exchange, so ask questions.”
She completed a program she might not have otherwise if she asked more questions. She says, “Ask when you're not sure about something. It's absolutely fine. One of the reasons that I bounced around so much in choosing my program for school was that I just wasn't sure how to get to where I wanted to go. I knew I wanted to work with community. I have plans at some point in my life to hopefully go to law school, but I didn't know what I needed to do to get to that point I dreamed up for myself.”
Current times are uncertain, too. States is coping through exercise, getting fresh air, watching what she eats and praying regularly. She notices signs she’s out of balance and tries to catch it becomes too overwhelming, recognizing the importance of physical, spiritual and mental health being in balance.
Inspired by her parents, by Indigenous youth and the way communities care for their own inspires States. She wants to see Indigenous youth succeed and for them to know there are often post-secondary admission programs for them. States also notes that post-secondary isn’t for everyone, that a path to trades, arts or something else entirely is equally valid and needed.
"Don’t feel like you have to do what you see everybody else doing, but definitely get to know yourself well enough to do what you feel you’ve got to do"
Ultimately, what’s been most important to States is finding community as she makes her way in the world. While she didn’t initially make use of the Indigenous student center at her university, she later found it to be crucial. “You really need that community, it's important in the success of your academic career, it's important in keeping you healthy and having access to a community of your peers and other Indigenous people, and it’s something not to take lightly.”
Through all the twists and turns on the way to the here and now, Larissa States shows that being an Indigenous role model isn’t just about knowing all the answers, it’s about being willing to ask the right questions. After making a long journey from Richmond, BC, Larissa States found community in Montreal, Quebec and now she’s helping build a community of Indigenous learners at McGill University and guiding other youth to find their own path for the future.
Thanks to Alison Tedford for authoring this article.
March 2022 Update: Larissa is a new mom and now works for inPath at the head of N’we Jinan ArtWorks, a skill-building program for Indigenous Youth that uses arts as a foundation for developing transferable skills, connecting to mentors and peers, and gaining real-world work experience in creative sectors. Larissa is also working with her mom to release a ribbon skirt collection in June 2022. Check it out on Instagram.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.