Aboriginal students taste university life

April 28, 2005, vol. 33, no. 1
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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At 15, Powell River high school student Sosann Blaney had already decided not to pursue post-secondary education.

Now just one year later, she's certain that higher learning is in her future - a turnaround she attributes in part to her participation in Pesk'a, a unique summer program for aboriginal youth based at SFU.

“I know that eventually I'm going to college,” says Blaney, a member of the Sliammon nation who hopes to one day run an adventure travel company.

She first heard about Pesk'a when her art teacher at Brooks secondary school handed her an application for the week-long program.

“I always thought it wasn't for me, but at Pesk'a I was meeting all these people who were probably going to college who I thought were pretty cool people. It made me reconsider.”

Now in its second year, Pesk'a - which means hummingbird, a symbol of healing, in Halq'emeylem - is co-ordinated by Shad International, a non-profit Ontario-based organization which for the past 25 years has organized acclaimed month-long science-and-leadership programs for high-potential Canadian young people. The program based at SFU “is a forum for aboriginal students to excel and explore their potential with the mentorship of aboriginal role models,” says Shad Valley president Barry Bisson.

This year, 20 aboriginal students entering grade 11 or 12 will attend the program from July 17-23. SFU's First Nations student centre director Sasha Hobbs, who oversees the program, says Pesk'a “offers a taste of the fuller Shad Valley program, but incorporates aboriginal cultural activities, perspectives and ways to help promote cultural identity.”

The organizers of Pesk'a “want to help aboriginal students see a place for themselves in post-secondary institutions,” says Hobbs. “We want them to have the same opportunity as other students to discover where they belong.

“Aboriginal students are so under-represented in post-secondary schools that any aboriginal student who makes the choice to attend college or university is cause for celebration,” she says.

“They are a role model for their siblings and for the community at large. Pesk'a helps remove the mental and emotional barriers to that choice.”  
During their week in Vancouver, Pesk'a students tour and participate in lectures at various campuses, including SFU, the University of British Columbia, Emily Carr college of art and design and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. They also visit local attractions such as Storyeum and the Museum of Anthropology, and visit students participating in the month-long Shad Valley program at UBC.

Though the campus visits were an eye-opener for Blaney, what she liked best about the program “was that it was all aboriginal. I've been to lots of conferences, and it's sometimes harder to get to know the non-native kids. It gave me a sense of belonging that's hard to put into words.”

Laughs Hobbs: “Halfway through the week, the group was so bonded they didn't ever want to leave.”

Indeed, Blaney, who will return to Vancouver in late May to accept a top prize in the Tobacco Expose Video Contest sponsored by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, says she'd “do it all again if I had the chance.” Instead, she is encouraging her friends to sign up.
Click here for more information about Pesk'a.

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