Building equity connections at UBC Okanagan
Guided by her experiences and a strong sense of justice, Dr. Electra Eleftheriadou helps faculty and staff to support equitable learning transformation at UBC Okanagan.
Equity has been a driving force for Dr. Electra Eleftheriadou throughout her life. Eleftheriadou is building connections to support equity in classrooms at UBC in her new role as Educational Consultant for Inclusion in the UBC Okanagan Centre for Teaching and Learning.
“Once you experience injustice or become aware of injustices happening to others, you can’t ignore it,” says Eleftheriadou. “To me, inclusion means everyone feels safe and valued in their community. And they feel they matter.”
This hasn’t always been the case for Eleftheriadou. From her childhood growing up on the island of Cyprus to her educational and workplace experiences, she has witnessed injustices directly—and she’s doing something about it.
“I’m from a place that is in between things. It’s a Middle Eastern country, but it culturally shares many similarities with Europe. It’s currently occupied, and has a long history of colonization,” says Eleftheriadou. “I speak a language that is not written and may disappear in a few decades.”
Eleftheriadou excelled at academics from an early age, but it was her deep passion for physics that led her to pursue post-secondary education as an international student in Edinburgh, Scotland. Earning the Wallace Prize award for top marks, she had the rare opportunity to move directly from undergraduate education into a PhD program studying theoretical physics in Glasgow. When she moved into her career in academia, Eleftheriadou, unfortunately, shared experiences common to many women entering male-dominated fields.
“I experienced a lot of sexism and racism that I wasn’t aware to name at the time,” Eleftheriadou explains. “I gave colleagues the benefit of the doubt when they made comments, like suggesting I was a diversity hire because the institution wanted to hire more women. I rationalized that they were missing information rather than being sexist.”
The reality of the sexism and racism that pervaded her discipline didn’t come into focus until she joined another university as a Postdoctoral Fellow and experienced many of the same issues. The toxic environment led her to look for opportunities to contribute to physics outside of academia, and she began working in the STEM outreach initiatives at the same institution.
“It was a beautiful experience in many ways—I loved collaborating with artists, people and museums all over Canada. But I started to feel that something wasn’t right. My job was to encourage girls and women to join science, but I had understood the systems currently in place wouldn’t support them, and I couldn’t ethically continue this work. The more I learned about power and privilege, the more I could see it.”
Rather than shy away from the issue, Eleftheriadou shifted her focus to changing the environment to support future generations of underrepresented groups in science. Through roles at UBC Vancouver and the American Physical Society, Eleftheriadou led and supported multiple initiatives and programs aimed at supporting equity and inclusion within and across institutions. Her true love, however, lies in instructor professional development and equitable and inclusive teaching, making her position in the Centre for Teaching and Learning a perfect fit. “I feel like my journey has led me here,” says Eleftheriadou. “I feel extremely privileged to do a job that is meaningful to me and that I love.”
“We can all learn from each other. So much inspiration and motivation to try new things can come from our connections and relationships with the people around us.”
Eleftheriadou believes that our biggest resource to support equity and inclusion is each other. “The beauty of doing this work is that we are all at different places in our journey. We all start from somewhere, drawing on our identities, experiences, power and privileges—or lack thereof,” she explains. “We can all learn from each other. So much inspiration and motivation to try new things can come from our connections and relationships with the people around us.”
Asking questions and making mistakes are part of learning, and Eleftheriadou sees building relationships and communities as an opportunity for faculty and staff to gain the confidence and courage to lead change in the classroom and beyond. “Change can come from anywhere—you don’t need to know everything to get started,” she says. “The first step is to find the motivation within yourself and trust that your community will be here to guide and support you along the way.”
Eleftheriadou is excited about what the future will bring at UBC Okanagan. “My heart would feel at peace if we witnessed meaningful systemic change at UBC,” says Eleftheriadou. “Specifically, I want to see the effective implementation of goals and actions from the Indigenous Strategic Plan, and the integration of Indigenous Ways of Knowing in all aspects of our work.”
In her role at UBC, Eleftheriadou will continue to provide guidance and accountability to educators who want to adopt inclusive and equitable teaching practices. “I want faculty to feel invited to take a leadership role in equity and inclusion and know that we are always here to help.”