Open yourself up to new experiences and friends. Think about what you can do to make the community better. Think about what you can do to improve the lives of those around you and seek transformative change.
It’s Thursday evening, and even though Liam Devitt (BA ‘21) is tired from a busy day at university, they catch the bus and ride to the Northside of Lethbridge, where they will spend the next few hours working with queer youth. Each day is different. Today they will help take the youth to a writing workshop. Next time they might be going to a queer poetry night or the Galt Museum & Archives. “It was peer support and civic engagement at the same time,” Liam explains. “We took them to the Galt Museum & Archives several times and we did different activities there, for example, doing an example of an audit of an older exhibit.” Liam is graduating this year with honours, a major in history and a minor in women & gender studies (WGST).
This volunteer work came about as part of Liam’s work curating an exhibit on queer history at the Galt. One of Liam’s honours’ thesis co-supervisors, history professor Dr. Kristine Alexander, helped them find the position. One of her then grad students was working for the Boys and Girls Club (BGC) in Lethbridge, and another initiative within the Queer Impact Club, a club and support system for queer youth aged 12-18. Liam got involved and split their time between working with the teens and doing museum work with the exhibit as an independent study. They involved the teens in the creation of this exhibit whenever possible. “Eventually, we decided that the youth who were part of the Queer Impact Club would help work on the exhibit and curate the exhibit. The idea of it was to give them hands-on history skills, museum skills and in many ways [help them learn] their history,” Liam adds. They are inspired to give back and hope to teach young people the same. “Find your people. Find your community. People really live and die by the people they know. Build connections and build solidarity.”
Along with other students, Liam completed many interviews as part of their oral history research. They also enjoyed many committee meetings, ensuring community members were on board with the project and the direction of the exhibit. “Part of this exhibit was providing youth with a space to have intergenerational dialogue around history and reminding the people of Lethbridge, especially those not in tune with queer history, that we’re here as much as you are. This place was always queer. They just live in it,” they add. Liam wanted the project to be grounded in community, and marginalized voices heard. “One of the interesting things we did was a layering of narratives, where we would have the interpretive text next to an object or artifact, and the youth would have their own accompanying quotes underneath in purple lettering. This would make people going to the exhibit aware of the interpretation and conversation that was happening.”
As a celebration of the exhibit, Liam and their colleagues arranged for a small event at the museum, where the teens had an opportunity to speak about their experience in the presence of museum staff, community members and BGC leaders. Liam was blown away by their responses, inspired and moved by their unique voices. “When some of the youth got up and spoke, for me it was the biggest part, because as someone trying to teach them queer history, how to be good queer young people and connect to their history, it was very impactful to see them go up there and have learned and grown so much.” While Liam made a significant impact on this project, they remain humble to a fault. “I was just one cog in a much bigger queer history machine,” they say. Liam adds, “Youth and kids are smart. They can do things, don’t underestimate them. Don’t try to sugarcoat things. They can learn, don’t talk down to them, treat them like human beings.”
This exhibit was one of the first of its kind in southwestern Alberta. Liam adds, “It was an extraordinary experience getting to build something with my community, for my community. I don’t think an opportunity like this would have been available in many other places. Because U of L’s size, and how dedicated professors are to their students, there are many opportunities to get involved in hands-on research.” As part of this project, Liam gained valuable experience working in public history and archival sources. “WGST professor Dr. Suzanne Lenon and Dr. Alexander were co-supervisors for my honours thesis and academic mentors to me throughout my degree. There were so many times that they pointed me in the right direction. From graduate school, life in general, trying to be a better academic, person and writer, I learned so much from them. I don’t think I would have gotten half as much out of university without them,” Liam gushes.
This exemplary exhibit is only one small part of a much larger uLethbridge journey. Liam organized a symposium in conjunction with their museum exhibit. They have involved themself with campus activism throughout their degree. They sat as a board member of Lethbridge Public Interest Research Group (LPIRG), a research group on campus, pursuing environmental and social justice. They also presented their unique research at conferences in both Toronto and London, England. Liam is also the news editor of The Meliorist, the student-run newsmagazine. “It was very much learning as you go. I gained many skills, became a much better writer, and held some people to account, whether we were talking about the Students’ union or the University itself. Journalism is very exciting and something I will definitely be taking with me in my career,” they say. While Liam had to deal with some angry opinions, they were able to keep grounded, remembering that their job was to tell authentic stories, even if they were controversial.
“Oral history is a methodology I used in my honours thesis research, and I will use it in my graduate research. It’s a fascinating and heavy methodology because you essentially sit with one person in a room for two hours or more, and they tell you their life story, which can get very heavy depending on where the story goes. There is a lot of emotional processing and emotional labour,” Liam explains. Their honours thesis focused on gay activism in Toronto during the neoliberal transition in the 1980’s and 90’s. Canadian queer history doesn’t stop and start in Toronto,” they note.
Liam has advice for new students. “It sounds cliché, but you learn so much at university beyond what you learn in classes. I learned how to read quickly and read lots, which served me incredibly well.” Diving into every reading, even the optional ones, was a game-changer for Liam. “Knowledge is iterative. The more you read, the more you can draw from it. But I’m a total book nerd, so I understand that advice might not work for everyone,” they add. But as Liam said, university isn’t all about the classroom. “Open yourself up to new experiences and friends. Think about what you can do to make the community better. Think about what you can do to improve the lives of those around you and seek transformative change,” Liam urges.
While Liam is missing in-person graduation celebrations with friends, they persevered through difficult times and are proud to have accomplished so much in four years. Throughout the pandemic, Liam has enjoyed cooking and starting a podcast, ‘A Queered Taste,’ to help pass the extra time spent at home. Liam will begin their Master of Arts degree in history at Concordia University in Montreal this fall. “That is my immediate plan. After that, who’s to say, the world is my oyster,” they smile. While Liam mentioned the difficulty of navigating the academic job market, especially during the pandemic, they are interested in political organizing, writing, and activism. They have a fantastic set of experiences to bring forward with them.