Special to The Labradorian
When Sheila Freake heads to Labrador to talk about some of the challenges students from the Big Land face when they uproot from their communities to attend Memorial University, she’s speaking from someone who has already travelled a similar path in life.
A native of Nain, the 37-year-old is a coordinator with the university’s Aboriginal Resource Office (ARO).
Freake’s initial exposure to Memorial came in the fall of 1992 when she started working towards a degree in native and northern education.
Her first few months on campus where overwhelming, she said.
“I’m a very outdoors person. I loved going to the cabin and going on the skidoo. When I grew up we were never bored, there was always something to do. We were outdoors playing and sliding and building snow tunnels and going fishing.”
Freake comes from a large family (six sisters and two brothers) in a small community.
University life meant adjusting not only to a new classroom environment but also to a new culture, she said.
“It was a positive experience for me but the transition was very difficult. It took some time to get used to the city life but it helped me grow as an individual and shaped who I am today.”
Freake said in adjusting to life in St. John’s, she learned as much outside the classroom as she did from her professors. However, she said, the experience was a little easier for her as her Grade 12 class at Jens Haven Memorial had visited the area and the university. Some aboriginal students don’t get that opportunity, she said.
“We took a tour of the university and the city. And I’d come out a few times before with family members. It was still overwhelming for me but I can’t even imagine coming in having not been here before.”
Reflecting on her school years, Freake said she learned a lot about Newfoundland traditions but not a lot about her own people.
When she entered the classroom as a teacher, she said, she felt information about aboriginal people was still lacking in the curriculum.
“I incorporated elements of Inuit culture into my teaching and I found that a very positive experience because it sparked the students’ interest. They wanted to learn about themselves.”
Freake taught school for a decade – nine years in Northern Labrador and one year in Central Newfoundland.
When she moved to St. John’s in 2008 she “lucked out” in getting her current job with Memorial. At that time she said the ARO office was run by the Nunatsiavut government.
It took some time to get used to the city life but it helped me grow as an individual and shaped who I am today - Sheila Freake
“When MUN took over the office, I continued working here,” she said.
Formerly known as the Native Liaison Office, ARO is headquartered at Memorial’s St. John’s campus and falls under the umbrella of the Department of Student Affairs and Services.
The office provides a variety of services to aboriginal students, including assistance with course selection and registration, tutoring and housing issues.
Approximately 500 aboriginal students are studying at Memorial’s St. John’s campus, the Marine Institute and the Grenfell campus in Corner Brook.
Freake was recently in Nain and other Northern Labrador communities talking about the services the ARO offers to students.
The trip included a youth symposium, organized through the Nunatsiavut government.
In addition to encouraging and welcoming aboriginal students to Memorial, Freake and her colleague Valeri Pilgrim, who is also from Nain, offer sessions in diversity training to faculty, staff and students. The sessions create more awareness about aboriginal people on campus and offer accurate information about their culture, she said.
“We have different people from various organizations come in and talk to us. We have traditional drumming and singing and they give brief information sessions about what they feel is important to get out there.”
The ARO was invaluable to her when she first came to Memorial almost two decades ago, Freake said.
Even today, she said, she feels “a sense of belonging” at work.
“I don’t think I would have been able to make it through university without this office. And I love what I’m doing here. I want to help aboriginal students make the transition as easy as it can be. I understand where they’re coming from and I know having the supports in place is important.”
Aboriginal high school students interested in learning more about Memorial are encouraged to visit the ARO website at www.mun.ca/aro
Labrador-focused businesses and individuals interested in giving presentations to Memorial’s aboriginal students are also encouraged to contact the office.