Community Issues

Psychology student wants to make a difference in Aboriginal communities

November 26, 2015
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Sara French. Photo by Greg Ehlers.

By Andrew Kochergin

Sara French of Samahquam Nation wants to make a difference in Aboriginal communities. She’s working on her BA in psychology at SFU while learning her culture’s traditional ways in her community so she can help people who don’t have access to mental health resources. “I’m not just going to focus on my community,” she says. “I’m going to travel.”

Sara initially decided to go back to school to help support her daughter. She heard about SFU’s Aboriginal University Prep Program from her mother, who had taught in the program, and applied because if she successfully completed it, she would earn conditional acceptance to SFU.

She admits she struggled at the beginning. Her study skills were rusty, and it was challenging to balance full-time studies with the demands of being a mother.

Fortunately, the program helped Sara improve her study skills. “I learned that there were a variety of ways to study instead of just sitting there and reading,” she says. “I used lots of different techniques, like mind maps and flash cards, and that really helped me with my grades.”

The program also taught her about university writing, prepared her for math courses and introduced her to a variety of resources on campus, such as the Indigenous Student Centre. “I couldn’t have done university without that program,” she says. “They really help you build confidence; they get you prepared for sure.”

For Sara, one of the program’s highlights was First Nations 101, which brought in Aboriginal guest speakers who had graduated from university to talk about their experiences.

After earning conditional acceptance to SFU, Sara tried courses from different departments. She didn’t feel excited about any of them until she took her first psychology course, which she was inspired to try following an eye-opening band meeting. “The elders were talking, and one of them broke down, and was saying how he wished people had more opportunities to talk to people, how they don’t have anyone to talk with in the community,” she says. “I made the connection. I thought, ‘This is it for me, this is what I’m going to do.’”

Sara’s goal is to obtain a PhD in psychology. In her future work with Aboriginal communities, she plans to combine her education with First Nation culture and traditions. “If you have the cultural tools, and can incorporate them with mainstream education, I think it would create a comfortable space,” she says. “When you can connect with people on a level where you understand and recognize their cultural background, it’s easier for them to open up.”

Sara says that while the Aboriginal University Prep Program was a challenge at the beginning, the work she put in was worth it. “If you stay and commit yourself, then you’re going to open up a lot of opportunities for yourself,” she says. “Because of the program, I am where I am today.”