New aboriginal education officer has work cut out

Some First Nations students face challenges adjusting to university

Aboriginal students face many challenges when entering post-secondary institutions. Photo: Dylan McAteer

Fourth-year Dalhousie kinesiology student Aurora Paul is from a community about an hour outside Halifax and the move to university took time to get used to.

“First year was the toughest part for me mostly because of the culture shock and massive population,” said Paul.

“It was kind of like being thrown into the fire, not quite as bad but it was tough.”

Nova Scotia’s newly appointed aboriginal education officer Jill Francis will be addressing the challenges faced by students like Paul. The purpose of the position is to strengthen relationships, bring awareness and understand how to better support First Nations communities.

An official with the Native Post-Secondary Education Counselling Unit on the Dal campus, however, was unaware of the position’s existence. The unit is a division of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq Education Department and is open to all native students.

“It’s somewhat of a surprise that I haven’t heard of this position or haven’t heard of anything surrounding this position,” said the counselling unit’s Sara Swasson. She hopes the new position will help aboriginal students overcome the transition to post-secondary education.

One of the biggest issues faced by students is funding their education. With tuition rates on the rise and the high costs of living, many simply cannot cover the costs. With each student band providing a few hundred dollars a month, Swasson hopes the future will hold bigger bursaries and scholarships for aboriginal students.

“It’s the same amount of money they’ve received from the bands for roughly 20 years,” Swasson said. “But the cost of living has gone up so it’s not really affordable for an aboriginal student to come to school relying solely on their funding.”

Their office, in front of Dalplex on South Street, is open to students from across the city. Dalhousie University doesn’t fund the office, its employees don’t work for the school, but the university does provide math, English and study skills support. The math tutor is paid for by an outside organization called Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey. Swasson estimates that about 98 per cent of students at the centre are from Dalhousie.

Many aboriginal students decide not to pursue further education, especially in cases where their parents didn’t either. Without this guidance, many First Nations students are left on their own to figure out applications and school processes.

“Career paths beyond the obvious doctors, lawyers and police aren’t always made clear to these students,” Swasson said.