For some, having to travel to school from the only community you’ve known can be overwhelming. Thousands of Labradorians have made the journey to universities and colleges to study within the province, across the country or around the globe. If you are familiar, you know that sometimes the transition to a new community or city can become confusing.
Adjusting to your new surroundings and meeting new people and being away from the familiarity of family, friends, community and way of life can be a course all in itself.
Universities have seen this need for students and have designated spaces for minorities or special interests groups as a way to overcome barriers and establish group collaborations.
The St. John’s campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland established an Aboriginal student lounge to support Aboriginal students who come from away to study. Now they are expanding this service with an additional Aboriginal Student lounge at the Sir Wilfred Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. The student centre will officially open on May 25 and will be located in the new extension of the Arts and Science building on campus.
“The Aboriginal Student Centre is a bright, highly visible space and it’s for First Nations, Inuit and Metis students wherever they come from – to feel that they have a home at the Grenfell Campus,” said Dr. Maura Hanrahan who is Memorial’s special adviser for Aboriginal Affairs.
Dr. Hanrahan says the initiative was given a final go ahead in early April around the time it was also announced the Human Rights Commission granted special program status to the university's Aboriginal designated seat program.
Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus VP Dr. Mary Bluechardt and Dr. Hanrahan of the St. John’s campus were recently in Labrador to tour the area and meet with members of the Labrador Institute and three of the Aboriginal groups in Labrador to discuss future collaborations and build relationships between the University and with the Innu Nation, NunatuKavut Community Council and Nunatsiavut Government.
“It really highlighted the importance of support services which is something that Grenfell acted on really quickly as a result of those meetings,” said Dr. Hanrahan.
“I think we can look forward to programming in the future. It takes time to identify needs and build on needs and so on.”
The Presidential Task Force on Aboriginal Initiatives was laid out in 2009, in which 22 recommendations were designed to enhance the success rate and retention of Aboriginal students within the province.
Dr. Bluechardt says MUN has been actively taking on what she described as ‘bridging the ever-shrinking gap’ between the Labrador Institute and Grenfell. “There’s a lot going on and a lot plans in the works for increased activity between the Labrador Institute and the Grenfell campus.
“We have an Aboriginal Initiatives committee here on campus and that group is putting together a proposal that Dr. Hanrahan and I will take forward requesting a liaison person for our Aboriginal students here on Grenfell.”
Dr. Bluechardt added that SWGC is currently enhancing programming and research collaborations to meet the needs of people who are not in close proximity to a university campus. One example Dr. Bluechardt cited is establishing articulation agreements such as a Socio-Cultural studies program in which courses taken at colleges in remote areas can be transferable to programs with the Grenfell or St. John’s campus.
“There’s tremendous opportunity and a willingness to collaborate and a number of opportunities and that is what we are going to be exploring. The time is right now, with the growth on the Grenfell campus to connect with Labrador and the Labrador Institute in a more structured and formal way than has been in the past. The visits have resulted in opportunities for collaboration with craft makers, visual artists, fish producers, agricultural and forestry experts. Those were some specific areas we looked at.”
Dr. Hanrahan who was appointed as the special adviser for MUN Aboriginal Affairs last July says the university has been working diligently with the Aboriginal Community to find out what the needs are and how they can be addressed.
“Sometimes it’s just as simple as changing the language on admission forms, or educating new faculty about the Aboriginal people in Labrador and throughout the province,” Dr. Hanrahan told the Labradorian.
She says the new SWGC Aboriginal student centre will start out small and will provide a gathering space, student support and encourage students to initiate Aboriginal Student Unions, clubs or other student-campus oriented organizations.
In addition, the student centre will have an array of Aboriginal themed artwork and resource library of information available from the various Aboriginal organizations. Dr. Hanrahan said the University would know more what the students would like to envision for the space in the coming months.
“We’re really excited about it and I know Aboriginal leaders are very excited about it. It’s concrete evidence of our commitment to showing Aboriginal students that this is their University.”