Jason Seright has some advice.
“Stay in school,” says the Director of Aboriginal Strategy at Saskatchewan Polytechnic. “Education will make a difference in your life. If there’s one thing you can bank on, it’s an education.”
Seright oversees the Aboriginal Student Achievement Plan (ASAP) at Saskatchewan Polytechnic. The plan, which was developed in 2009 to address the unique needs of Aboriginal students, has two main goals – to increase enrolment and increase success and completion.
Since then, enrolment rates and graduation rates have been climbing. With more than 18 per cent of the total student population identifying as Aboriginal, it is the responsibility of everyone at Saskatchewan Polytechnic to help Aboriginal students have an equal opportunity to succeed.
A culture shift on campuses
But it is the culture shift taking place at Sask Polytech’s campuses that resonates.
“When I first started it was me making phone calls. I was sending out the emails,” said Seright about reaching out to staff across campus to incorporate the ASAP recommendations into Sask Polytech’s programs and services. “Now I’m getting a lot of staff calling me, sending me the emails, asking for advice, offering suggestions of different ways we can do things in the future.”
Sask Polytech hosts cultural activities and summer transition programs, gives students a comfortable space to study in Aboriginal Activity Centres, and provides scholarships and emergency funding. Sask Polytech is working toward having Aboriginal culture and language blended into speeches, signage and public spaces. ASAP has counsellors at the Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Prince Albert campuses, each of whom meet with about 200 students a month. They are a welcoming presence, offering support before students step into a classroom.
From student to role model
“A counsellor emailed me about three months before starting my program,” said Chantel Buffalo, who completed her Hotel and Restaurant Management program in May. He invited her to a transition program a month before courses started to help her get comfortable with school and figure out where her classes were.
“I just knew that ASAP was there,” said Buffalo, who went to the Aboriginal Centre every day. “The counsellors were very welcoming, they would always come out of the office as soon as they saw a student walk in.”
It wasn’t long before Buffalo found her place in school, getting support from ASAP, and helping other students. As she juggled family, work and school, she found many students shared her struggles. She provided advice and encouragement. She eventually became a spokesperson for ASAP. She’s featured on their role model calendar. She has spoken about her experiences at several events including a keynote presentation at a Colleges and Institutes Canada 2016 Indigenous Education Symposium at Yukon College.
Support was always there
Buffalo experienced a tough childhood growing up in Saskatoon, witnessing violence and drug abuse. When she had her first child at 16, she knew she wanted something different for herself and her kids. She worked several manufacturing and construction jobs over the years, but realized there was something else in store for her. So at 28, with four young kids, she headed back to school. She spent two years upgrading through the Adult Basic Education program before enrolling in Hotel and Restaurant Management. She was a dedicated student who worked hard to maintain a positive attitude and earn marks in the 90s. She had to overcome some tough obstacles. She kept herself to a rigid schedule to fit school, studying and family time into her days. She also lost her best friend to suicide right before final exams. “During that time my ASAP advisors were there every single day for me. They would call and let me know that if I needed something they would help me.”
Now, she is working and plans to one day open a restaurant with a menu that blends her First Nations (she is a member of the Kawacatoose First Nation) and Laotian heritage. Buffalo echoes Seright’s advice to stay in school. “It’s about being able to commit to yourself and remain focused. To remind yourself you’re in school for a reason.”
And she says the support from ASAP can help students make it.
“They are the biggest help that you can find on campus.”