People of SFU

Community, connection and family: Jessica La Rochelle empowers Indigenous student success as new Director of Indigenous Student Services

February 28, 2022
Jessica La Rochelle (right) with her grandparents, Siyamtelot Shirley Leon (left) and Swelimeltxw Rudy Leon (centre).

If you meet with Jessica La Rochelle on Zoom, you will likely see her knitting. “My Gram taught me to knit and crochet. I’m passionate about mental health, and I find knitting a great way to stay grounded and relaxed.”

It’s a fitting hobby, considering her work in community building where many small ties create a stronger whole.

After holding roles at SFU in Indigenous student recruitment and admissions and as acting director of the Indigenous Student Centre (ISC), La Rochelle has been named the new director of Indigenous student services.

“While working as acting director at the ISC, I fell in love with the work, and made great connections with the team, so I jumped at the chance to take on this new role,” La Rochelle says. “I’m so grateful to work with such a wonderful group of humans. I really appreciate having the opportunity to connect with a group of Indigenous folks that are so passionate and excited about the work that they do and I’m so grateful to be a part of the team.”

La Rochelle takes on this role with extensive experience supporting Indigenous youth in higher education, community engagement and policy work.

La Rochelle is Stó:lō from Sts’ailes band, Okanagan and Trinidadian. She grew up on the Sts’ailes (Chehalis) reserve which is located along the Fraser River. She shares her traditional name, Lhkwemiya, with her mother. The name was given to her by her grandparents and refers to a set of mountains near her home community known as the 'Three Sisters’, with Lhkwemiya known as the third sister.

La Rochelle began working at the Native Education College (NEC) as an undergraduate student, which she describes as an eye-opening experience. At the NEC, she connected with urban Indigenous communities and became familiar with the operations and relationships of a college between Indigenous peoples.

She has also held positions with the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (NVIT), the Ministry of Advanced Education and Employment Training, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and the Indigenous Teacher Education Program (NITEP) in the UBC Faculty of Education.

NITEP further fueled La Rochelle’s passion for working with students.

“I love getting to see students through their journey,” La Rochelle says. “One of my students began meeting with me in grade 10. He came with his parents every summer to meet with me to make sure he was on track to enter the program. Just last year, he just graduated from UBC. Seeing that growth has been so rewarding.”

As director of Indigenous student services, La Rochelle and her team provide support and advocacy for Indigenous students, and work closely with Student Services to provide culturally appropriate programming and services for Indigenous students. La Rochelle strives to create a positive academic experience for Indigenous students, and to reduce or remove the barriers they face, such as access to educational systems, supports and funding.

“I really see my role to be building relationships with other folks in leadership positions across the university to ensure that Indigenous students have a voice,” she says. “It’s important for me to make sure that folks understand that Indigenous students are diverse and have a range of experiences and that they aren’t overlooked.”

“I want students to feel safe at SFU, to feel that they have a voice and can come to the ISC for advocacy and support.”

This includes ensuring that students at all campuses have access to the same services and resources. La Rochelle is working with leadership at all campuses to expand the ISC’s programs in Surrey and Vancouver, which will hopefully include new dedicated physical spaces, in addition to the existing ISC office at Burnaby campus.

She also hopes to expand the ISC’s Elder program to bring in more Elder mentors. The ISC Elder program allows Indigenous students at SFU to receive guidance, knowledge and support from Elders from the surrounding community. Currently, the program works with Elder Syexwaliya (Ann Whonnock) from Skwxwu7mesh Uxwumixw (Squamish Nation), and Elder Margaret from Sq’ewá:lxw (Skawahlook)First Nation. “In expanding the program, we can have a wealth of knowledge from all of our local host nations as well as Métis and urban Indigenous communities.”

These intergenerational teachings play a key part in La Rochelle’s own journey; she cites her close relationship with her grandparents as being an important part of her upbringing and who she is today. Her grandmother is a graduate of NITEP and her aunt is a teacher, both of whom had a significant positive impact on La Rochelle’s education.

“We’re a really tight-knit family,” La Rochelle says. “In a way, my grandparents treat me like their youngest child and my cousins are more like siblings.”

"Gramps with his book. He is sitting with my mum (Lhkwemiya, Dena Leon)."

Throughout the pandemic, La Rochelle and her family stayed connected by sharing stories over Zoom, a necessity which grew into an unexpected collaboration. La Rochelle was asked by her grandparents, Swelimeltxw and Siyamtelot to support the publication of Swelimeltxw’s memoirs, Listen to Words Unsaid: Echoes of Elders. The book has been a project involving the whole family, with La Rochelle, her aunt and her grandmother contributing to editing and publication, and a prologue from all the grandchildren.

“It’s been so interesting and so fun,” says La Rochelle. “All of the different ways that my grandparents supported us and taught us and mentored us, now we have it all in one book that we can share.”

The book chronicles experiences from Swelimeltxw’s earliest memories of travelling by canoe instead of car, to his career as a logger, to his present life as an Elder.

The history embedded in her grandfather’s stories has even had impact beyond her immediate family. “One of the Indigenous instructors at the local university has actually adapted it for her course on Indigenous studies, so students are reading it for their course, which is really cool,” La Rochelle says.

With strong mentors and supports in her life, La Rochelle is eager to share that with the Indigenous communities at SFU through the ISC. She encourages anyone seeking support or community to reach out.

“I know right now there’s a lot of conversations happening right now about self-identification and Indigenous identity. If Indigenous students have questions about self-identification or if they’re not sure if it’s appropriate for them to connect with the ISC–just connect with us! We’re here for you to ask questions and have those conversations. It has been difficult to maintain a sense of community through the pandemic. As we transition to offering in-person programming and services, there are a lot of opportunities to connect.”

For the latest information on the ISC’s activities and initiatives, the SFU community is encouraged to follow the ISC online, through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.