From the Faculty of Education to YouTube, Alexis Hillyard proves there are infinite paths you can take with an Education degree under your belt.
Hillyard ('06 BEd, '11 MEd) is best known as the creator and star of Stump Kitchen, a lively YouTube cooking show where she invites us to watch her in the kitchen to see how she cooks one-handed. Hillyard was born without her left hand owing to congenital banding in the womb and has made her stump the focus of the show, from the ways that she uses it as a kitchen utensil to the guests she features on her show, many of whom also have limb difference.
Hillyard says the cooking show grew out of the her novel approach to cooking.
“I loved how I use my stump in the kitchen, like as a juicer, and just the way that I use my body is kind of fun and unique,” she says.
It may not be obvious at first, but Hillyard’s YouTube work is well-served by her education background. She regards the show as a continuation of her academic studies as well as her work in social justice, which came into focus when she joined the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (iSMSS), first as a volunteer during her undergraduate degree and later as Education Facilitator and then as the Institute’s first Sexual and Gender Minority Equity Advisor.
“Learning about social justice and how to make the spaces more inclusive has been a huge part of my jobs and my learning,” Hillyard explains. “Those principles I can take into my show by being really inclusive with the foods I use and the diets that I cook for, like vegan and gluten-free, and just being sensitive to allergies.”
She also promotes inclusivity through her many guest stars. While the show is fun and light-hearted, it also addresses topics that aren’t commonly heard in the mainstream, such as living with disabilities. Hillyard feels these conversations are crucial to eliminate the stigma surrounding these topics.
“I cook with a lot of kids who have limb difference like me, folks with disabilities,” she explains. “We have conversations that get at topics that people need to be talking about more.”
“It’s never been about her”
A constellation of rainbow-hued sticky notes speckles an entire wall of Hillyard’s living room. Each one bears the name of one of her Patreon supporters – including many University of Alberta professors, colleagues and fellow alumni. Hillyard is pursuing Stump Kitchen as a full-time career and the financial support she receives through Patreon is integral to its sustainability.
Kristopher Wells, educational policy studies professor and faculty director of iSMSS (’94 BEd, ’03 MEd, ’11 PhD), isn’t surprised when he hears that his name is on a sticky note in Hillyard’s living room. “That just shows you she doesn’t take it for granted and she’s never taken those supporters and those collaborations for granted,” he says. “That’s what makes her special and unique: it’s never been about her; it’s always been about building community and moving our society forward.
“I think that’s where Stump Kitchen excels: taking these messages of inclusion to new audiences to think about a person’s disabilities and abilities in very different ways,” Wells continues. “It’s just about that education as humanization, which is so core to our work at the Institute and [Hillyard] was such a key part of and she continues to do that in her own unique way.”
A childhood in Education
In one sense, it’s very fitting that Hillyard ended up in the Faculty of Education. After all, her mother is Fern Snart, former dean of the Faculty of Education (2005 to 2015). But Hillyard is quick to mention that her mother never pressured her into following that path. In fact, Hillyard almost didn’t end up attending post-secondary.
“I had a really tumultuous high school experience—I almost didn’t graduate,” Hillyard recalls. She attended Centre High to upgrade the courses she needed for post-secondary, and it was there that she found a direction for her education.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Hillyard recalls. “But when I was at Centre High I had a math teacher, Michelle MacIntyre, who was incredible and she reminded me that I love math and I’m really good at it and I did really well. It was from that experience that I was like, ‘I think I could be a math teacher.’
While Hillyard didn’t actually end up teaching math—aside from a year teaching overseas in Namibia as part of an exchange through her choir, Kokopelli—that experience led her back to the University of Alberta.
“As a baby, I grew up in those hallways,” Hillyard says. “[Snart] would take me to meetings when I was a kid and put me up on tables and I’d sleep there. I used to sing in the stairwells with my sister when I was like seven years old because they have cool echo chambers in them. So in a way, it was really fitting that I went into education.”
Creating a space for young people to flourish
Most Stump Kitchen viewers aren’t aware of Hillyard’s education background, but she notes that it often comes out unconsciously.
“A lot of people say, when I’m working with kids on the show, they can tell that I’m a teacher,” she says with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, once you leave Education that kind of sticks with you.’
The planning skills she learned through her education have also been invaluable to the show’s success, she continues. Ultimately, Hillyard hopes that Stump Kitchen can provide educational opportunities that we often assume are solely found in a classroom setting—and demonstrate that an educator is far more than just someone teaching in a school system.
“I think ultimately an educator’s role is to provide the type of space for young people to flourish in the ways that work for them,” Hillyard says. “And that’s going to be different for everybody and it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach for all kids.”
Feature image: Education alumna Alexis Hillyard on the set of Stump Kitchen (photo: KTB Photography). Secondary image: Hillyard poses with her Wall of Patrons (photo: Natalie Faith Photography).