Brigitte Benning: Visiting Scholar and Community Builder
Friday, June 9th, 2017
One of many things that makes GPRC unique is the on-campus Friendship Centre, a space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to gather and participate in social and cultural programs. Although there are many Friendship Centres across the country, GPRC is the first college in Canada to host a Friendship Centre on-campus.
GPRC alumna and visiting scholar Brigitte Benning made extensive use of the Friendship Centre during her time at the college. “I would come and sit in between classes, grab coffee, talk to the Elder in Residence,” she explained. “I enjoyed the on-campus Friendship Centre when I went here, and then realized once I moved how important it was. I missed it a lot.”
Now, after graduating with her Bachelor of Sociology from the University of Victoria, Benning has returned to GPRC to complete research for her master’s thesis on the Friendship Centre. Once again, Benning has found a welcoming community at GPRC, this time with her colleagues in the Research & Innovation department. “I have a support network here,” she said. “It’s a very inspiring atmosphere. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is valued.”
Benning’s experiences working with Research & Innovation surprised her in some ways. She had never realized the scope of GPRC’s research culture. “I don’t think I gave [the college] enough credit before,” she said. She mentioned that the team meets regularly to discuss and share the projects they are working on. “I don’t think I realized how much research and innovation was happening and how much community engagement there was.”
Community engagement fascinates Benning, especially in regards to Indigenous youth. It is part of the reason why she chose to focus her studies on the Friendship Centre. Benning explains the shift in academia occurring right now toward doing research with Indigenous people rather than on them. “I’m not just going to come here, get some answers, and go,” she said. “That’s extractive. That’s wrong.”
Instead, Benning has spent eight months immersing herself in the community, attending conferences and ceremonies, and performing dozens of interviews with current and former GPRC students and faculty. “I just ask them, ‘What’s working for you? What’s not?’”
Benning hopes her research will help other colleges improve the ways they support Indigenous students. “I know there’s things about this centre and other programs that work for some people and won’t work for other people,” she said. “I’m really inspired to find out the ways that we can make it work for the most people possible.”
Benning knows there is something special about GPRC and the city of Grande Prairie that fosters the kind of communities that form here. It is what made the on-campus Friendship Centre so special to Benning, and it is what continues to make her feel so welcomed at Research & Innovation. It’s what drew her back home to Grande Prairie and what keeps her here now.
“I really appreciate Grande Prairie,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t think places that are like oil field cities can have as much [sense of community]… but I think the fact that there is such a community in Grande Prairie makes it that much stronger.”
Learn more about the On-Campus Friendship Centre: https://www.gprc.ab.ca/services/indigenous/friendshipcentre.html
Get to know more about our students and scholars: https://www.gprc.ab.ca/research/about/people/scholars/index.html