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Aboriginal women taking on leadership roles at U of S

The following article on the Aboriginal women of Arts & Science appeared in the March 2012 Eagle Feather News. View the issue in its entirety at:

Aboriginal women taking on leadership roles at U of S
By Kirk Sibbald for Eagle Feather News

She originally viewed Saskatoon as analogous to “Timbuktu,” but after interviewing for a faculty position at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Arts & Science, Kristina Fagan was sold.

A member of the Labrador Métis, Fagan grew up on Canada’s east coast and eventually completed a PhD in Aboriginal literature at the University of Toronto. After interviewing for faculty positions across the country she was presented with multiple job offers, but said the U of S made her choice relatively easy.

“Moving to Saskatoon was like moving to Timbuktu. But when I came here for my interview, I was really made to feel by my department, the dean and the university as a whole that working in an Aboriginal-related area was really valued and important. And I hadn’t felt that at (other places) I went to school or interviewed for positions,” she said.

“It has been a really, really good place to work and I haven’t regretted my decision for a moment.”

Fagan’s story is not unlike that of many other Aboriginal female faculty in the college—individuals who choose to work at the College of Arts & Science, in large part, due to the college’s increasing emphasis on Aboriginal programming and scholarship.

A professor in the Department of English, Fagan was also hired as the inaugural assistant dean of Aboriginal affairs for the College of Arts & Science in 2011. Fagan says this position is indicative of the college and university’s commitment to making campus a place where Aboriginal students and faculty can feel welcome, supported and valued.

“At other (universities) Aboriginal education is almost a fringe issue. Here, though, I think pretty much everyone on campus recognizes that Aboriginal education, and the position of Aboriginal people in society, is a critically-important issue,” she said.

“To me it’s amazing that the (College of Arts & Science’s) dean, the president, all the way up the ladder there is a sense that Aboriginal initiatives are one of, if not the, top issues for the university. I think we’re really special in that way.”

The College of Arts & Science is currently home to almost 700 Aboriginal students—almost half of the total number on campus—and the number of Aboriginal professors and sessional lecturers in also increasing annually. To ensure this growth continues, Aboriginal-themed initiatives now figure prominently in the college and university’s Third Integrated Plans, which chart strategic directions for the next four years on campus.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way, and several female students and faculty deserve credit for helping pave the way.

Annie McCay was the university’s first Métis woman to graduate, receiving a bachelor of arts degree from the College of Arts & Science in 1915. She served on student council, The Sheaf editorial board, played women’s hockey and was the first secretary-treasurer of the U of S alumni association.

Freda Ahenakew, of the Ahtahkakoop First Nation, received a bachelor’s of arts degree from the College of Arts & Science and was one of the university’s first female Aboriginal professors, joining the Department of Native Studies in the early 1980s. A nationally-respected expert on Cree language and traditions, Ahenakew received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the U of S in 1997.

And Winona Wheeler, whose family hails from the George Gordon First Nation, joined the Department of Native Studies in 1987 and currently serves as the department’s head.

When Wheeler first joined the College of Arts & Science, she was the only female Aboriginal professor and there were few Aboriginal students attending the U of S. Although she says Aboriginal people are still underrepresented at the university—particularly in the faculty ranks—considerable progress has taken place over the last 25 years.

“A lot has happened,” she said. “There wasn’t much Aboriginal content or programming when I first got here, and now it appears in a lot of different courses and departments (across the university).”

Role Models
The College of Arts & Science has made hiring more Aboriginal professors a top priority over its next planning cycle, but the ones who already there play key roles in student success.

Caroline Tait, a Métis professor in the Department of Native Studies, says she sees firsthand how important it is for Aboriginal students to have professors they can identify with on a personal level.

“I see students who highly identify with the faculty, and that creates a bond,” she said. “It means a great deal to students to see people who have come from similar backgrounds, know the culture and have seen and lived through similar issues.”

Fagan agrees, saying it’s important students realize the college and university aren’t simply another part of “the big, white world.” She said Aboriginal professors in the College of Arts & Science form meaningful, lasting connections with many of their Aboriginal students, and this is something she only sees increasing as more Aboriginal professors are hired.

“It’s important that we have Aboriginal faculty and staff so that Aboriginal students feel like this is their world too,” she said.

To enhance the welcoming environment created by Aboriginal faculty in the College of Arts & Science, Fagan has also implemented two new programs focused on helping students succeed personally and academically.

One of the first tasks Fagan undertook as the assistant dean of Aboriginal affairs was creating the Aboriginal Student Achievement Office (ASAO). The office, which is staffed by two Aboriginal academic advisors—Lorie Peters-Whiteman and Jacob Roesler—provides personalized advising services.

In the fall of 2012, the college will also be launching the Aboriginal First-Year Achievement Program (ASAP), designed to help new students succeed through mentorship services, financial supports and life-skills education.

Fagan said ASAP was developed, in large part, due to data that shows a dramatically high dropout rate for first-year Aboriginal students in the College of Arts & Science. Once students make it to second year, however, graduation rates skyrocket to almost 86 per cent.

“I found that really sad. You come to university, maybe you’re the first generation in your family to be here...and then you don’t make it through first year. That has got to be so tough,” said Fagan.

“So with the college’s new support systems and offices and like ASAO and ASAP, we hope to help students get through that tough first year. Ultimately, that’s what really motivates me. I want to see students succeed.”

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