Aboriginal Students Taking Their Future Further

As we near the close of Canada’s National Aboriginal History Month – a month filled with the recognition and celebration of the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples – we acknowledge that the conversation can’t stop here. Ontario universities are calling on all Ontarians to support Aboriginal achievement in postsecondary education by engaging in conversations throughout the year about the role Aboriginal peoples are playing in taking Ontario’s future further – economically, socially, and culturally.

In February, the Council of Ontario Universities launched the website Future Further, a portal through which Aboriginal students, their parents, school counsellors and community members can explore options for university education across the province and the challenges and rewards to be found at any of the 20 participating universities.

At the heart of the project are the first-person testimonies of 13 role models who are currently studying at Ontario universities or have recently graduated. In short videos, contributors share stories of their journey: leaving homes that are north, south, east and west of their university; coming from First Nation, Métis and Inuit background; or entering postsecondary as youth tentatively setting out on their own or as mature adults marking a path for their children. The diverse portraits hold up a mirror where potential students as early as grade seven or as experienced as a grandmother can see a reflection of themselves as they begin to imagine that their future could include university.

Relatively few of the adult generation in their home communities have attained a university degree, and even though most of the students in the videos reported encouragement from their family to widen their horizons, they had to wrestle with uncertainty about what this new adventure held for them, whether they had “the right stuff” to succeed, and whether the racist attitudes and negative judgements some of them had encountered would be repeated in the new environment. These students were successful but not always moving in a straight line toward their goals. Some took time out from school to gain life experience and coping skills. Some found that their original path was not a good fit and adjusted their goals. Finances were a stress for others.

The stories reveal some common elements in student success. Each of them at some point had to choose what they wanted to do and dreamed of what they could do. For some, the choice was formed in early childhood or high school, for some as youths who became dissatisfied with their life situation, for some in later life who re-built battered self-esteem and became ready to take up a challenge. That resolve motivated their hard work and carried them through difficult times.

Striking out for university meant leaving the safety of family, community and familiar routines, in some cases travelling hundreds of miles from home. There is a sense of wonder in student descriptions of finding in their university a community that wasn’t quite home but close enough to be comfortable. They referred to these communities, usually revolving around the hub of an Aboriginal student centre, as “a home away from home” and “another family.” Sylvia Maracle, a leader and innovator in the Ontario urban scene, described these communities as “families of the heart,” bearing many of the mutual aid features of extended families in our tribal history.

Probably the most powerful marker of student success evident in the stories is the joy of discovering their personal capacity to learn and to do things they never dreamed of. Their achievements will open doors to work and further study, with visions that are distinctly Aboriginal. Over and over they recount how the formal and informal learning that has been available at university has deepened their awareness and appreciation of their Aboriginal identity. It has allowed them to connect their education with possibilities for serving their community, which they now define broadly as including Aboriginal peoples across the land or even around the world.

See how Aboriginal students are taking their future further by visiting the campaign’s website here: http://futurefurther.ca/

Marlene Brant CastellanoMarlene Brant Castellano is co-chair of the Aboriginal Council at Queen’s University, was a professor in the Native Studies Department at Trent University from 1973-1996, and served as Co-Director of Research for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. She is a member of the Mohawk Nation, Bay of Quinte Band, and maintains a permanent resident on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.