FutureReadyWabanaki empowers Indigenous students to be successful in the workforce

A new program has launched called FutureReadyWabanaki to provide Indigenous students in New Brunswick with equal access to local work experiences prior to their university graduation.

On Nov. 6, St. Thomas University and University of New Brunswick students and staff gathered in UNB’s Student Union Building to celebrate the launch of the program, created through a partnership between New Brunswick employers, universities, Indigenous students and the Government of New Brunswick.

During the event, students Candace Jones, Matthew Golding, Tiffani Fazio, Shyla Augustine, Jared Durelle, Stephen Augustine and Nadia Wysote shared their experiences with the program.

For fourth-year STU student Shyla Augustine from Elsipogtog First Nation, FutureReadyWabanaki is helping her publish a Mi’kmaq alphabet book.

Augustine said she didn’t know or speak Mi’kmaq as much as she would have liked to, and thought about how important it is for future generations to know and preserve it.

“I thought about my kids, I thought about my language disappearing, I thought about myself,” she said.

Augustine started the book during her first semester, before knowing about FutureReady.

Augustine, who had an experiential learning opportunity as an educator, said she was able to be part of course planning and was given the opportunity to implement some of the elements of her culture.

She was an intern at the UNB Early Childhood Centre. She volunteered and taught there from September to December 2018 and worked there from January to July 2019.

“The ideas that I put together were generally valuable for children and my ideas continue to be used during future planning.”

Augustine taught the children numbers in Mi’kmaq. Augustine’s son attended the centre.

“They asked me many things about his culture and what not so I always went in,” she said.

She wrote the first half of the book, made a copy and gifted it to them. She also gifted them a CD with children songs in Mi’kmaq and brought her children to dance for them in regalia.

She said when she started working with children it inspired her to write the first half of the book that would intertwine English and Mi’kmaq.

“It was important to me to preserve and promote our language within our Indigenous children, but also to other children that could learn its value too.”

“My son would read the book that I created to his peers and his teachers, and it made me so proud.”

This fall, Augustine is the Indigenous student services coordinator assistant at STU, where she works with students of all ages. She’s involved with projects that include the promotion of Indigenous students’ mental health research to making the Wabanaki Centre feel like a welcoming place for students.

Augustine mentioned her idea to create a Mi’kmaq alphabet book to the STU experiential learning office, and she said they made her realize how important and valuable this could be.

“They showed me with FutureReadyWabanaki that this could be much more than I ever could imagine it to be,” she said.

Reflecting the Indigenous communities

Over 70 other people attended the event, which featured guest speakers in addition to the student testimonials.

Clara Santacruz, manager of STU’s experiential learning office, said FutureReadyWabanaki is an added initiative exclusively for Indigenous students, whereas FutureReadyNB, which also provides experiential learning opportunities to students, is open to all. 

“This allows us to have more funds dedicated for that specific student population,” she said.

FutureReadyWabanaki began unofficially in January 2019. STU already had the funds in January and Indigenous students were already accessing these opportunities then, said Santacruz. FutureReadyWabanaki is the new name given to those funds that are specifically allocated to Indigenous students. This year, STU received over $110,000 for Indigenous students opportunities and removing barriers to accessing them.

The program’s branding is also different from FutureReadyNB’s. 

Trenton Augustine, Indigenous student services coordinator and one of the speakers, explained the new branding.

The logo has an arrowhead design and features red, white and purple, colours prominent in traditional Wampum belts.

Trenton said the different layers in the arrow represent levels of engagement that are required by all stakeholders to succeed. He said the amount of colours reflects the nation to nation relationship, such as the partnership with the Indigenous communities to ensure the success of the program.

“This is another small but important way that the program reflects the Indigenous community,” said Trenton.

He said the program is at its early stages of implementation.

“It is already positioning New Brunswick as a leader in Canada with a shared vision.”

Trenton added the program is designed to strengthen the job-readiness of students related to their field of study.

“We want to make sure that students are receiving valuable and relevant working experience they can take with them after graduating that can help them secure employment.”

The program also aims to increase the number of students that stay to work in New Brunswick.

Trenton said the FutureReady working group was formed in 2018. It’s made up of members from the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour and Indigenous representatives from the four publicly funded universities: STU, UNB, Mount Allison University and Université de Moncton, Indigenous partners such as the Joint Economic Development Initiative and Indigenous education directors and elders.

Trenton said the program is designed to ensure the success and growth of Indigenous students in New Brunswick.

“We believe that the program must be reflective of the Indigenous communities that it serves, encompassing those Indigenous values, cultural beliefs and world views,” he said.

Experiential learning opportunities are customized for each student.

“Not only did the working group want to ensure experiential learning opportunities, but we wanted to ensure that Indigenous students were supported, and the growth of their Indigenous identity, culture and language.”

The FutureReady working group also allocated a portion of the funding towards projects and initiatives that support Indigenous culture and language.

Trenton said that at least 56 students have benefitted from FutureReadyWabanaki during its first year.

UNB student Tiffani Tazio was also one of the students who shared her testimonials. Last week, she won the FutureReadyWabanaki Student Excellence Award at the FutureReadyNB Gala, an event that recognized students in the province who have participated in experiential learning opportunities.

Tazio won for her work with the Nisuhsane project, which partners Indigenous students in UNB’s Bridging Year program with upper-level students to help increase their sense of belonging at the university through culturally relevant and supportive mentorship.

Tazio said she has learned about how her culture is something that can be shared.

“I don’t think that our culture and our identity should be something that we should be ashamed of anymore,” she said.

As for STU student Augustine, her book will be published professionally with the hopes of bringing it to classrooms all over the province. She also hopes to have the book become part of New Brunswick’s Born to Read Program, which is a free bag of books given to New Brunswick mothers with a new baby.

“To this day, I am still in shock, thinking about how being passionate about something I thought was a simple project has turned into an educational tool for young children and sharing my language is available to anyone who wants it,” she said.

“FutureReadyWabanaki helped my project come to life in ways I’ve never imagined, and I’m excited to see where it will lead.”

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