University of Alberta welcomes growing numbers of Indigenous students

by John Copley

On Tuesday, August 30 the University of Alberta (UA) opened its doors and welcomed new and returning Indigenous students to participate in the Aboriginal Student Services Centre’s (ASSC) 7th annual TAWOW event, a welcoming initiative that began back in 2009.

“TAWOW,” explained ASSC Director Shana Dion, “is an on-site interactive booth fair for new and continuing First Nations, Métis and Inuit students that introduces the many programs and services available in our campus and city communities. Through TAWOW, students become well aware of volunteer opportunities, community supports on and off-campus, internships, future employment opportunities, and awards and scholarships specifically for FNMI post-secondary students.”

Twenty-five students attended the first gathering in 2009 and that number has continued to grow each year.

“TAWOW is an exciting time for both our staff and for every First Nation, Métis and Inuit learner who chose the University of Alberta as their place to study, play, laugh and grow as they pursue their post-secondary journey,” noted Dion. “This year more than 300 students from all facilities and years of study participated in the event.”

University of Alberta's Indigenous students received well stocked backpacks at the TAWOW welcome event hosted by the Aboriginal Student Services Centre.

University of Alberta’s Indigenous students received well stocked backpacks at the TAWOW welcome event hosted by the Aboriginal Student Services Centre.

FNMI students who attend the TAWOW event receive a University of Alberta backpack, each of which is filled with items donated by various faculties and departments on campus. 250 backpacks were available for students at this year’s TAWOW.

“This initiative,” explained Dion, “was created to acknowledge the students who chose this campus as their place of study, and it gives us the opportunity to let them know that they are appreciated and that we continue to care about them.”

The backpacks are provided via a generous donor, who, despite his many years of generous participation, doesn’t want to be formally recognized. Numerous door prizes are also handed out to the students.

“These door prizes are available because we have many donors who share the same motto and beliefs that we do,” added Dion. “These students have left their homes to be here; they left their place of love, family, and support and because they did that to achieve their educational goals, we strive to provide those same comforts.”

Among those providing donations to the TAWOW event are the UA’s Faculties of Law, Nursing, Science, Extension, Graduate Studies and Research and the Office of the Registrar, School of Public Health, and the Alberta School of Business.

TAWOW event welcomes Indigenous students to the University of Alberta.

TAWOW event welcomes Indigenous students to the University of Alberta.

“We are also very grateful for the support and generous donations we receive from our community sponsors; without their support events like TAWOW would not be possible.”

Those community sponsors include such organizations as the City of Edmonton, Indigenous Relations, Rupertsland Institute, Shell Canada, RBC, and others.

Dion, who attended the UA and majored in Native Studies with a minor in Human Ecology, is a former Nechi Institute employee and the manager of the National Addictions Awareness Week campaign. She encourages students who utilize the Aboriginal Student Services Centre to “get active, stay active, dream big, do better and focus on fulfilling both your short term and long term goals.”

Students who work hard, eat properly, and focus on their educational goals will succeed,” she emphasized. “The more support you can get, the better you will do and that’s one of the primary reasons for TAWOW and other events that take place throughout the year here at the university.

Indigenous students are welcomed at University of Alberta TAWOW event.

Indigenous students are welcomed at University of Alberta TAWOW event.

“We understand the struggles and the hardships that some of our students face; transitioning from a rural community to the urban environment and life on campus can be scary at first. We are here to help alleviate those concerns and to help students find the path to success.”

To enhance opportunities for student success, ASSC offers a number of programs that help pave the way. The Transition Year Program (TYP), for example, is a University access program for Aboriginal students who may not be prepared to enter a faculty through the regular admissions route.

“This is not an upgrading program,” explained Dion, “but a full-time University of Alberta program in Open Studies. The program is designed to help prepare Aboriginal students for admission into faculties that include Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences (BSC), Arts (BA), Business (BCom), Elementary or Secondary Education (BEd), Native Studies (NA NS), Nursing (BScN), Physical Education & Recreation (BPE) or (BARST) and Science (BSC).”

Other annual opportunities include Bridges Orientation, a free introduction to campus and respective faculties based on a student perspective, specifically for first-year First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) students; the Writing Mentors Program, which supports current undergrad FNMI students in their academics, particularly their writing skills.

“There is also an Aboriginal Student Advisor available to discuss any concerns students may have,” explained Dion. “This includes everything from academic inquiries to funding and scholarship information and support for those interested in housing opportunities.”

In an effort to respect traditions and cultural ceremonies and meet the needs of UA staff and students, a Ceremonial Room is also available for students and staff to access anytime during office hours. Medicines (sage and sweetgrass) are on-hand for students to use.

“Another annual event is the hosting of the Round Dance, an initiative that brings together the children, friends, families, youth and Elders of our community to share stories, catch up on news, break bannock, and share some tea,” noted Dion. “This is a time to honour the traditions and memories of our ancestors. The Round Dance was a healing ceremony that became a social dance for our people and a dance that is held in the winter season. From the first tuning of the hand drums (by way of fire), to the fun of meeting old friends and making new, a Round Dance is for everyone, children, friends, families, youth and Elders.”

The next Round Dance will be held Saturday, January 28, 2017.

Traditional knowledge is a way of life and Elders are available on campus to impart wisdom that embraces both the heart and the mind. “Our Aboriginal Student Services Centre Elders dedicate their time to share their holistic teachings and experiences with our community, a sharing of ideas and knowledge between one generation and another.”

The Miyo-Pimatisiwin (Living the Good Life) program, is designed to inspire and challenge the FNMI population on campus to start living their best life through physical activity challenges and meet-ups. The program introduces information on healthy snacks and meal recipes, with a focus on inspiring positive change that enhances well-being.

“This year we worked with Campus and Community Recreation to offer a Metis Jigging Class for students and staff as another form of working out and for the ones that want to learn to dance,” noted Dion.

ASSC’s Writing Mentors program supports current undergrad First Nation, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) students in their academics, in particular their writing skills.

Housing can present a problem for many students making a transition from one community to another and Aboriginal students are no exception. “It can be a major barrier for so many students moving into a city,” assured Dion, “but thanks to a viable partnership with Residence Services, we offer a variety of housing opportunities for FNMI students attending the University of Alberta – in both single student and family student housing.”

Aboriginal Student Services also hosts an annual Spring Gathering event that honours First Nation, Metis and Inuit graduates. This gathering offers graduate students an opportunity to bring their families and friends to the university to feast and celebrate.

For more information about the University of Alberta and to see the entirety of programs offered through Aboriginal Student Services Centre, visit



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