Jesse Wood feels like he has someone in his corner.
Jesse Wood (left) and Jerica Ryan.
The Grade 12 Sir Winston Churchill student has learned about himself, his opportunities and what it means to be Mohawk since hearing an announcement last fall by aboriginal student engagement worker Jerica Ryan.
“Hearing that announcement to come down here was one of the best things that happened this year,” Wood recalls of the announcement inviting aboriginal students to visit Ryan to discuss their background and their education.
It set in motion a fascinating year for Wood. During March Break, he is one of 20 Ontario students in the University of Toronto’s SOAR Aboriginal Youth Gathering and Recruitment Camp, focused on health and wellness from an aboriginal perspective.
This year, he is taking a new native arts credit course at Churchill, learning about everything from T-shirt design to photography from an aboriginal perspective. As a hobby, he joined an extracurricular drumming group. And he sits on HWDSB’s aboriginal education advisory committee, after Ryan suggested he share his voice.
“If it weren’t for Ms. Ryan, I wouldn’t even know about it,” said Wood, 17.
Since starting in May, Ryan has been a persistent voice at Churchill promoting special events, awards and opportunities for aboriginal students. She has even helped Wood learn about smudging and Mohawk language phrases.
For Wood, being of Six Nations heritage didn’t play a big role growing up in Hamilton. His grandfather would talk about it, share dream catchers and stories. But he has learned so much more this year. His voice on the aboriginal education advisory committee is important as the group considers how self-identification for aboriginal students in schools will work. The group considered: Why would a student choose to identify? How can we make this process comfortable?
“One of the main things I wanted to talk about is that aboriginal programs don’t get a lot of notice in schools, so we should talk about them more,” said Wood. He also thought more about his future, which will see him attend Fleming College in Peterborough this fall to study international trade, with a plan to transfer into Trent University.
Wood’s opportunities now also include his application to an aboriginal military program for summer employment run by the Canadian Forces. The six-week summer training that combines a military lifestyle with cultural awareness lessons, taught by various Elders. Wood is waiting to hear back about his acceptance for summer 2013.
“A strong identity can be a life-saver,” Ryan explains. “It’s about how you see yourself, and being able to engage in events with people to build a community. I find that it’s good for students to know they have someone here – and I can work with them to talk through their transition to post-secondary choices.”
Wood’s expanding opportunities come as HWDSB prepares to ask students to identify as aboriginal, in a voluntary and confidential way that does not require documentation. For students under age 18, it would involve parents and caregivers/guardians.
“We are encouraging families to self-identify because it will enable us to determine programming and supports to increase First Nation, Métis and Inuit student success and achievement,” said Superintendent of Leadership and Learning Sharon Stephanian.
Ryan is aware of 82 aboriginal students at Churchill, but thinks the figure is likely double that.
Stepping forward was even difficult for Ryan, growing up part Mohawk in Picton, Ont.
“Even for me, it took me until university to say anything because I went to an all-white school, and you don’t want to be different. When some kids identify, others will be more likely to do it too,” Ryan said. “I became much stronger when I gained this self-identity.”
Have a great story? Submit it here.