"This is who I am."

Aalayna Spence never imagined moving a province away would make an entire world of difference in the woman she is today.

Spence is a proud Indigenous woman who identifies as transgender.

She grew up in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, which is located in a small town in Manitoba called Nelson House. Though brought up in a very loving home, she recalls being bullied mercilessly by her peers.

Spence carried those experiences with her to Mount Royal University. While initially apprehensive about settling into a new environment, she found a strong sense of belonging on campus.

"This is not a choice. This is who I am," she said. "Living in a body that doesn't belong to you is not a choice.

"But I am happy here. This is a safe environment that my university has provided me."

Spence is currently enrolled at Mount Royal, and she hopes to work as a counsellor with at-risk Indigenous youth.

Her journey to graduation is supported by the University's Diversity and Meaningful Inclusion plan, which addresses challenges experienced by disadvantaged students and staff. By getting involved with the Iniskim Centre and the Pride Centre at Mount Royal, the affable 22-year-old student has further enriched her educational experience while strengthening her ties to the LGBTQ+ community.

This is not a choice. This is who I am. Living in a body that doesn't belong to you is not a choice."

Steve Kootenay-Jobin, Events and Housing coordinator at Iniskim Centre, noted that Spence has been a strong educator of Indigenous culture and has been part of creating a bridge between the Students' Association of Mount Royal University and the Indigenous hub on campus.

"Aalayna is a much-valued member of our community," says Kootenay-Jobin. "This has been seen through examples such as her efforts in organizing safer space training within the Indigenous Housing program."

Tanya Ross, the Relationships, Sex and Identity programmer at the Students' Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU), shares a similar fondness and respect for Spence.

Ross shared that Spence plays a strong participatory role in the Pride Centre through sharing her life experiences.

"By sharing her story, she brings the message to the community that transgender violence is very real and constant," Ross said. "She has drawn awareness to these issues and helps create a space where people can engage in dialogue."

Unfortunately, the bullying and abuse hasn't stopped completely. Even as an adult, Spence continues to experience violence when visiting her hometown. One particular case was recently detailed in news reports.

Of visiting home Spence says, "I have never been more scared to be who I am than now. This happened in my hometown and was just another message of exclusion."

Back at her academic home, Spence feels that Mount Royal University and the people here have been nothing but supportive.

She hopes everyone will one day understand the, "very real and intense pain," experienced when someone changes their gender presentation. This occurs on many levels, from emotional, physical and spiritual perspectives.

Right now, she doesn't dwell on how far she's come.

"I am still on my healing journey as a woman, figuring out who I am and what I can do," Spence said. "Ever since I came out as transgender, all I have ever heard is that I threaten people because I am different."

In pushing back against societal norms with the support and sense of belonging she feels here at Mount Royal University, Spence feels safe to declare: "I'm still standing. I'm still here!"