Decolonizing higher education in the classroom: Reflections from a graduate student

By Marisa Lally,  Doctoral Student at Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development

I recently guest taught a session in a Diversity of Higher Education course that focused on the decolonization of higher education as an approach to imagining the future of higher education. As an early doctoral student, this guest session was my first experience teaching master’s students in a higher education program. I used Stein et al.’s 2021 Developing Stamina for Decolonizing Higher Education: A Workbook for Non-Indigenous People as the central text of the course session. This workbook is aimed at non-Indigenous scholars and practitioners of higher education like myself and the students in the course. In this essay, I reflect upon my experience leading this class alongside the students of the course as a group of non-Indigenous educators. I hope that my reflections can serve as a resource or conversation starter for other educators who may approach the topic of decolonial approaches with students in the future. 

The Bus Within Us

One of the aims of the workbook is to support people invested in reforms toward decolonization in higher education to develop the stamina to do so. The authors acknowledge that the process of decolonization is non-linear and will require ongoing self-reflection and self-critique that may cause uncomfortable feelings. 

I myself encountered this experience during the class. A student asked me if I had posed the discussion questions that I had created for the class to any person from an Indigenous community whose land my university continues to withhold. In the moment, I felt “affectively overwhelmed” (Stein et al., 2021, p. 10) and made excuses to the class – I want to learn by reading first before asking for the labor of Indigenous people; my personal research focuses on neocolonialism rather than settler-colonialism; I am new to this learning about decolonization as an approach. I am in the wrong, but I chose this workbook for non-Indigenous people. I am wrong, but we are all complicit. Yes, but, yes, but, yes, but… 

I also began to question if I was committing harm by agreeing to guide a course session on decolonization rather than inviting an Indigenous scholar or community member to do so. Although I have begun to educate myself on the topic by reading, how long can I use this excuse before I take action? Is the students’ exposure to these ideas an action in itself? Is it, through the lens of the ‘Approaches to Reform’ offered in the workbook, no reform or minor reform to include decolonial approaches to higher education in a classroom if the Indigenous voices are only on the page and not in the room? Am I performing a “settler move to innocence” Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 9) (i.e., an action to appease my own guilt) by leading this course and by offering this reflection? These are the questions I left with when our session was over. 

The workbook offered some answers to my questions through the bus metaphor. The contributors to the project invite the readers to “become familiar with, and accept (without endorsing), all of the passengers within ourselves: ‘the good, the bad, the ugly, and the broken’” (p. 10). Not only was I able to begin the process of knowing these passengers through written reflection, but I was also able to prompt students to begin to become familiar with these passengers through the guidance of the scholars in the workbook. I was also reminded that many passengers can be on the bus at once, and I can challenge the dualistic thinking to which I am accustomed. 

Using Examples 

Another strategy for introducing approaches to decolonization beyond prompting self-reflection through the bus metaphor was to offer some examples of potentially decolonizing efforts in higher education and to ask students to reflect on the examples’ place within the “Approaches to Reform” and “Layers of Accountability” offered in Chapter 2 of the workbook. Some of the case examples included the university website of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi (a Māori institution of higher education), the mission statement of the Rhodes Must Fall student movement in South Africa, and a variety of land acknowledgments from institutions in the United States. These case study examples were especially helpful in guiding students to consider what makes decolonization a distinct and specific effort from other social justice approaches. Students specifically noted the focus on land, ecological sustainability, and the commitment to historical redress. 

In small groups, the students discussed where they thought the case may lie within approaches to reform and layers of accountability. They were also given the opportunity to discuss what the passengers of their bus (i.e., their layered affective responses) were doing as they considered these examples, as well as what such efforts would look like in their own professional contexts. The students shared feelings of overwhelm, discouragement, and optimism as we debriefed their various considerations of the case study examples. 

Concluding Thoughts 

I hope that, by offering these approaches to working with students who hope to begin careers as higher education staff, non-Indigenous educators can at the very least encourage a wider ripple of reform efforts, including greater inclusion and celebration of Indigenous perspectives, more equitable redistribution of resources, and, ultimately, begin the process of returning institutional land to Indigenous communities on a large scale. I express my endless gratitude to the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective for creating the workbook, and I encourage those who use the workbook to donate to the GoFundMe campaign listed on its first page. 


Stein, S., Ahenakew, C., Elwood, J., Andreotti, V., Valley, W., Amsler, S., Calhoun, B. & the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective. (2021). Developing Stamina for Decolonizing Higher Education: A Workbook for Non-Indigenous People. The Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective. Retrieved from:

Tuck, E. & Yang, W. (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40. 

About the author:

Marisa Lally is a doctoral student at Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

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