Helping students find their way

Shawnee Brave Rock never intended to go to university, but after excelling at her high school upgrading courses, she followed the example of her mother – a PhD student – and enrolled at the University of Lethbridge.

Born and raised in Lethbridge, Brave Rock knew the city well, but the University campus was new territory.

"It was really exciting but at the same time, I was really intimidated. It was just really scary," she says.

For the pre-management student, the Native Student Advisor, Elizabeth Ferguson, has been a critical resource.

Judith Wabegijig, left, and Shawnee Brave Rock are appreciative of the assistance they get from Native Student Advisor Elizabeth Ferguson.

"I'm a single mom, and I think my biggest struggle isn't school – it's life outside of school," says Brave Rock. In the last two years, she's approached Ferguson for help with everything from scheduling classes to accessing the food bank, and says this guidance has eased a lot of the pressure.
"One of the most important factors for success for aboriginal students is the support they receive on campus. This support must be culturally relevant and reflect the needs of the aboriginal community," says Ferguson (BA '03, MA '05).

Campus can feel like a large, imposing place for any student, but it can be especially tough for First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) students. Many of these students are from out-of-town and may feel shy about asking for help finding the services they need or connecting with the FNMI community. Having an FNMI advisor can mean all the difference.

Judith Wabegijig, a mature student taking Native American Studies, would agree: she meets with Ferguson two or three times each semester for guidance.

"It's stress relieving being able to talk to the advisor about unexpected problems I've had and being directed to the right person to talk to," she says. It's also helped her maintain focus and motivation when the demands of student life pile up.

But success at university requires community support, too. In addition to offering academic counselling for students, the Native Student Advisor organizes several events during the year to connect FNMI students with each other and with the
U of L campus as a whole, like Native Awareness Week. For Brave Rock, these social links are as important as academic services to her success.

"When I'm in class and walking around university, I don't see many aboriginal students. But, because of the services the University offers, I've met a lot of other native students. It's not that it's exclusive, but we stick together and do things together."

With a tradition of strong aboriginal connections, the U of L implemented the Native Student Advising Program in 2002 in response to the growing number of FNMI students, and to ensure they received the support they needed to succeed academically.

This year, the program received a significant boost thanks to a gift from the Ralph Klein Foundation and matching funds from the Alberta Government through the Access to the Future Fund. As a result, the Native Student Advising Program will be able to hire a second advisor, expand its services and help more students like Brave Rock and Wabegijig in the coming years.

"The Ralph Klein Foundation was proud to support the U of L because of the work the University does for aboriginal students," says Colleen Klein, who served as Chair of the Foundation. "Words cannot express how much this will impact the lives of the aboriginal students: it will provide them with a sense of welcoming and belonging, and will allow them to follow their dreams and become role models for other students."