Nicole Lugosi

An Unconventional Path for an Unconventional Scholar: Nykkie Lugosi Teaches Cree & Native Studies

“Something magic happened when I stood in front of the classroom, right from day one. I was finally where I was always meant to be, and never knew it,” recalls Nykkie Lugosi, remembering how she fell in love with teaching. She lives in Edmonton and is originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba. In between, she’s called places like Vancouver and Toronto home. Becoming an assistant professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta wasn’t her plan but it’s where she ended up after some twists and turns. 

Her path to university was as unconventional as her path to teaching. She didn’t finish grade ten as her mother was ill, though she did love school. She worked in retail, got married and had a child and when her maternity leave was coming to an end, she decided to try to go to university as a mature student. 

Retail felt like a dead end so she applied to the transition year program a month late with her baby in a stroller, determined to get in. She challenged exams to qualify and succeeded. “If you really want to do something, you can do it,” she affirms. Her determination came from wanting to break the cycle and show her daughter what was possible with hard work. 

At first, she wanted to study political science and work for the government or go to law school. Working towards her degree, she studied each level of the Cree language and fell in love with it. On the side, she worked as a tutor. 

Coming up to graduation, she wasn’t ready to leave school and decided to continue onto a master’s degree, deciding against law school. She figured she would work for the government or an NGO after her next degree, but life had other plans. When she finished her first year of her master’s degree, her Cree professor approached her about teaching introductory Cree and it was an instant fit. 

Teaching in university, publishing, going to conferences, she knew what she needed next was her PhD. She continued teaching Cree and Native Studies and as she finished off her doctoral program she was asked if she wanted to apply to be an assistant professor in the Native Studies department… and she did! 

Her advice for someone thinking about leaving their home community to go to school is to talk to as many people as possible to find out more information. “A lot of times we make assumptions about barriers,” she reflects, thinking about how she might have gone back to school earlier had she known about the program sooner. 

Keeping an open mind is something else she recommends. Political science is a lot broader than what one might assume based on high school social studies, she explains. Reaching out to undergraduate advisors, peers and students can be a good way to learn about the student experience.  Away at school, Lugosi notes the biggest risk is isolation. She suggests attending orientation sessions, game nights, and meeting up with people you’ve interviewed. 

Thinking back to the obstacles she’s overcome, Lugosi struggled financially without funding. Between student loans and scholarships, she made it work. She encourages students to apply for everything they can. “If you feel like finances are a barrier, there are so many scholarships, there are so many bursaries. Just get out there and find something even if you don't check all the boxes… apply anyway…. you'd be surprised,” she urges.

"What I learned along the way is that money attracts money… It looks good on your application when you apply for more."

One of the hardest parts of applying for funding is having to sell committees on why they should fund a scholarship request, Lugosi found. It can feel like bragging but it’s just defining what you have to offer, your successes and it gets easier with practice, finding the balance of confidence and humility.  “We're taught to be humble, and not to be sounding arrogant. But highlighting your success is different than arrogance,” she reassures. If she could give advice to her younger self it would be, “Be proud of who you are. Be open to change and then just do it. Don't wait. Start learning and investigating this stuff now.” 

To keep her mental health in check Lugosi tries not to “doom scroll”, finding a balance of watching funny shows, reading comic books and bringing some lightness to counter the heaviness of her research topics. She engages in unapologetic self care, looks to success and gets inspired by her students. 

Lugosi remembers when she was lost on her first day, wandered into the men’s room, missed her bus stop and thought she was going to be late. “Now, I know my way around the campus like I've lived here my whole life,” she beams. Seeing her first year students getting excited to learn gets her motivated, too. 

When she needs more inspiration, Lugosi looks to her daughter and the small things in life. She’s inspired by learning, also. “I love having the opportunity to learn. Sometimes when it gets really hard, I also remind myself that universities weren't built for people like us, right? They weren't built for Indigenous people, for Indigenous women. I mean, our languages were banned only a few decades ago and so to see classroom after classroom of students, learning Cree, for instance, is so powerful. It's a kind of medicine, in a way,” she muses aloud. 

"Learn your language, learn all of them. Even if it's just a couple words, that has power. It’s something we always should have had and not everyone has access."

Her advice to Indigenous youth is, “Learn your language, learn all of them. Even if it's just a couple words, that has power. It’s something we always should have had and not everyone has access.” She would also like to say, “Believe in yourself. No matter what anyone tells you. You can do what you want to do. If your goals even seem out of reach, don't listen to that. Break it into small steps and think about what you want and be open to change and even getting pulled in new directions as you learn.”

Something magic happened on day one when she first stood in front of the classroom, when Nykkie Lugosi finally found where she was always meant to be. She never knew she was supposed to be an assistant professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta but a winding path led her there. Once determined to find her way, now she’s leading classes and sharing her Cree language to help Indigenous learners on their own path.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
  • Date
    April 23, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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