New aboriginal education initiatives to be revealed in fall

    It’s been almost exactly two years since Chris George began his three-year term as St. Thomas University’s director of aboriginal initiatives.

    Since then, George has familiarized himself with some of the university’s aboriginal students and made contacts with aboriginal communities and organizations around the province.

    But many of the fruits of the 1999 STU graduate’s labour will be evident this fall, he said in an interview from his James Dunn Hall office last Friday.

    “You’ll start seeing a lot of the initiatives we have in place [in September],” George said.

    He can’t say what the initiatives might consist of yet.

    “We’re not really sure how far they’ll go and which ones we’re going to pick up and champion.”

    George was hired in February 2010 to increase the participation of aboriginal students at STU. At the time, he said his main goal was to improve STU’s aboriginal population and see them through graduation. To do this, he said he would have to break down some of the barriers students face when leaving reserves.

    By September, George said it should be easier to tell whether STU’s aboriginal population has increased since his time at STU began.

    Until last September, it was difficult to track the number of aboriginal students at STU. Now, there’s a box on the STU application form where someone can self-identify as aboriginal if they feel comfortable with it, George said.

    “It’s a tough thing to ask somebody their ethnicity, religion, those kinds of things, because it is private in nature. It can be used in negative ways.

    “We use those numbers for budgeting purposes, tracking numbers of students and showing progress with what we’re doing.”
    It won’t be George alone who will decide which initiatives go forward in September.

    He’s in the process of setting up an advisory committee of community members, alumni and “other key stakeholders” to ensure there’s transparency with what they’re doing.

    In the meantime, George spends much of his time networking, sometimes while travelling with university recruiter Owen Marshall. George will go to schools that have an aboriginal school advisor designated for the school’s aboriginal students.

    “It’s important for me to build up a relationship with the aboriginal student advisors at the schools,” he said.

    “New Brunswick is small. Most of them I am familiar with. I went to school with some of them, I’m family with some of them. It’s basically just keeping in touch with each other and kind of knowing what’s going on.”

    Out of the about 15 aboriginal students George works with at STU, he estimates half of them are straight out of high school, while the other half are mature.

    When these students start STU, they’ll often meet Emily Smith, a first-year social work student who works with George.

    She offers seminars to students on things like time management and nutrition, in addition to tutoring and essay reading services.
    For many of the first-year aboriginal students George encounters, it’s all about making students comfortable here.

    “A lot of it is just overcoming the anxiety of coming to class every day. It’s just basic things that young people face.
    Sometimes it’s just a conversation, getting to know someone who’s been through the program.

    “It’s all the same stresses that come with coming from a small community, a small town. Fredericton is huge to a lot of people from rural New Brunswick.”

    With his term winding down, George said he thinks there’s more support for aboriginal students at STU today than when he was a student.

    Most of his support came from the native studies department and Andrea Bear Nicholas, now the endowed chair of the native studies department.

    George had only been living in Canada for two years, having moved from the Worchester, Mass. in high school after his parents split up. He didn’t know much about his own Micmac culture, but discovered that at STU.

    “When I moved to Canada and I moved to a First Nations community, I was immersed in our culture and to what it was.

    “Then I came to university and I met the professors and I met other people who had been involved in the political side and the historical side.”