On-Campus Aboriginal Elders Provide Guidance To Students


Do you have trouble managing stress? Do you want to connect with other Aboriginal students at your Canadian university or college? Do you have questions about your heritage? An elder can help.

Elders are recognized as role models for being wise, caring and patient.

“I encourage students to find someone who walked the path they are currently walking.”
Joanne Dallaire, Elder, Aboriginal Education Council, Ryerson University

They have extensive knowledge—often gained through years of learning, personal struggle and sacrifice—about Aboriginal history, traditional ceremonies, values and spirituality.

Elders listen and offer guidance on a variety of issues, share stories about their life experiences, and help students connect to their cultural roots.

“An elder is a source of inter-generational support for Aboriginal students,” says Shelley Charles, resident elder and advisor in Aboriginal Relations at Humber College in Toronto.

But often elders are more than just mentors or advisors; they can become your friend and sometimes fulfill the role of a grandparent. That’s why many students refer to Shelley as “grandmother” or “aunt.”

One of the most difficult challenges many Aboriginal students face, she says, is moving from a small, rural community or reserve and adjusting to life on campus and in a large city.

An elder can make the transition less stressful by helping you feel at ease in you new environment, introducing you to other Aboriginal students, and connecting you to other resources at the school like career counselling, peer mentorship or Aboriginal student services.

Since an elder’s wisdom is rooted in their experiences, no two elders are alike. Elders can be specialists in one or more areas including traditional sacred ceremonies, legends and songs, spiritual well being, healing and oral history. Joanne Dallaire, an elder for the Aboriginal Education Council at Ryerson University in Toronto, says students should find out about an elder’s experiences, what they specialize in and if they can help with their specific concern or problem.

“I encourage students to find someone who walked the path they are currently walking,” she says. “If I had an addiction issue, for example, I would speak to an elder who had an addiction and survived.”

Many elders offer one-on-one counselling sessions, perform traditional cleansing ceremonies and lead group talking circles on college and university campuses. Which one is best for you? “It depends,” Joanne says. If you prefer to speak privately, opt for one-on-one counselling with an elder. But if you can be open and honest with your peers about your feelings and thoughts, participate in a talking circle.

“Students need to find what works for them,” she says. “Don’t expect an elder to give you all the answers. I believe in individuality and uniqueness, not creating clones.”

Shelley recommends that students offer an elder either sage (to clear negative energy) or tobacco (the most sacred medicine). Then, Joanne says students should ask the elder to perform a cleansing smudge ceremony to reflect, strengthen, create balance, and develop an emotional and spiritual connection between the student and elder.

But you don’t have be an Aboriginal student to meet with an elder. Shelley says she often advises non-Aboriginal students hoping to learn more about Aboriginal traditions and issues.

Have you ever met with an elder at your college or university? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.

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