Many Aboriginal people reside in Canada’s major cities today, but there is still a significant number of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students who come from small, remote communities to attend college or university.
Moving away from home to study in a new city is a big adjustment for any student, but for Aboriginal students it can be particularly challenging.
“I just thought, from my own perspective as a First Nations woman and a student at that time, what would I have been comfortable with?”
—Shana Dion, Director, Aboriginal Student Services Centre at the University of Alberta
You may be the first person in your family to pursue post-secondary education, and attending college or university may be the first time in your life that you’re away from your home community and immersed in a culture that has the potential to be very different from what you’re used to.
If you hope to succeed at school and in your career, it’s essential to begin building your network and taking advantage of the resources available to you from day one.
At most post-secondary institutions, Aboriginal students may only make up a small proportion of the population. So how can you connect with students who know what you’re going through and services that will help you not only adjust to life at school but also succeed in your studies and career?
Take advantage of Aboriginal service and career centres
A number of colleges and universities have specialized career centres and services for Aboriginal students. At the University of Regina’s Aboriginal Career Centre, for instance, students benefit from educational and career planning services, partnerships with both local employers and the Aboriginal community, and an internship program.
The University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Student Services Centre (ASSC) is another example worth mentioning. Students there have access to a range of programs and services at the ASSC: connections to Aboriginal traditions and cultures, elder services, guidance, emotional support, funding for tutoring and workshops, and volunteer opportunities.
The centre is also there to help University of Alberta students find their way into the workforce – the next stage in their lives.
“It comes down again to the networking and connections,” says Shana Dion, Director at the ASSC. “A lot of the connections they have might be from back home and not from the urban setting. If we don’t choose to go back home, what are other options?”
That’s where the ASSC comes in, helping students explore their options and create those key connections through events such as the University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Week of Welcome.
From non-profit organizations to banking services to the City of Edmonton, they all gather to welcome First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students to the city and to university life. In addition to becoming aware of the supports and services that are available, the event allows Aboriginal students to begin looking for potential employers.
Later in the year, University of Alberta students can have their resumes reviewed by the school’s Career and Placement Services (CAPS) in anticipation of the Aboriginal Student and Employer Mixer. Established two years ago by the ASSC and CAPS, this mixer helps students and recent graduates network and find summer and permanent employment.
Annually, over 40 employers attend and showcase the job opportunities within their organizations and corporations. The chance to chat with recruiters one-on-one at a casual mixer, intentionally free of the large banners typically seen at career fairs, is meant to put students at ease.
“I just thought, from my own perspective as a First Nations woman and a student at that time,” Dion says, “what would I have been comfortable with?”
“[The employers] recognize that you’re a student, that you’re probably going to be in class that day, and if you end up coming in your sweatpants or your jeans, you know, that’s OK!” she states. “They’re seeking you out. So you just show up. The first thing I would say for the students is just show up. From there, everything will just fly.”
Know you’re an asset
Many employers want new hires who come with relevant experience. While this is true, Dion says there are those who are willing to work with students who might not have that experience.
She advises Aboriginal students currently making the school-to-work transition to believe in yourself and know that you are of value to employers.
Aside from the knowledge and skills you gained at school and in your student jobs, Aboriginal graduates can also bring a unique connection to their own community and other Indigenous communities as well – something that may be difficult for most organizations to develop on their own.
“Somebody might not come with connections to so many communities, understanding protocols, knowing who elders are, knowing who community members are in certain areas where an industry might need to connect,” Dion explains. “So if a student is from a certain area and chooses to work with a certain industry leader, maybe that industry leader works with that community. You have a connection already with that community. That’s an asset. You know what I mean? They don’t have to build that.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that each person comes with unique past experiences, journeys, knowledge, skills and relationships which can be a benefit to any organization, says Dion.
Which Aboriginal student services do you use at your school? Are there any services you’d like to see more of in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Photo credit: Thompson Rivers University