Dal steps up support for Aboriginal students with full‑time advisor and support centre

- May 11, 2016

Sara Swasson, Dal's first full-time Aboriginal Student Advisor, says her goal is to create a holistic range of supports for students. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Sara Swasson, Dal's first full-time Aboriginal Student Advisor, says her goal is to create a holistic range of supports for students. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

Dalhousie has established its first full-time Aboriginal student advisor position and created an affiliated campus centre to boost support for students from Indigenous communities attending the university.

The advisor and centre will offer a range of services and supports aimed at fostering a sense of community among Aboriginal students on campus and enhancing their chances of success both in and out of the classroom.

The new supports are part of a three-year pilot project that emerged out of a memorandum of understanding between Dal and the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq (CMM), an organization that advocates for First Nations communities across Nova Scotia.

Culture of diversity and inclusiveness

Anne Forrestall, assistant vice-provost, Student Affairs, says the creation of the advisory role and centre speaks to Dal’s broader commitment to fostering a culture of diversity and inclusiveness at the university.

“These new supports will help improve the experience of our Aboriginal students and ensure they have every chance of being successful,” says Forestall.

The creation of a student-support centre and advisor was one of the many recommendations included in a university-led report released last fall on Aboriginal and Black/African Canadian student access and retention at Dal.

In the past, support for Aboriginal students at Dal and other post-secondary institutions nearby was provided by a liaison with the Native Education Counselling Unit (NECU). While it was located on Dal’s Studley campus, it was funded entirely by CMM with some in-kind contributions from the university, such as office space.

Under the new partnership between Dal and CMM, the advisor becomes a full-time employee of Dal. As part of Student Affairs, the advisor will have opportunities to create a seamless experience for Aboriginal students seeking support, as well as access to additional resources. The centre will remain on the fourth floor of the Student Union Building for now, but Forrestall says the university is hopeful it can expand the space in the near future.

Holistic support

Sara Swasson, who moved uninterrupted into the new advisor role April 1 from her position as a liaison with the NECU, says her goal is to use the extra resources to expand the range of programming and supports she can offer students.

“My aim is to support Aboriginal students at Dalhousie holistically, so to support them in their academics, support them culturally, and support them socially,” says Swasson, a Mi'gmaq from the Listuguj First Nation in Quebec.

Swasson says that will include everything from in-house visits from math or writing tutors, nutrition and personal finance workshops, and various social gatherings at the centre. She adds that input from students has been and will continue to be a key driver in determining what kinds of workshops and events to offer.

In addition to developing new programming, Swasson will work collaboratively with Student Services on boosting retention and success among Aboriginal students, advise and advocate for students, and liaise with stakeholders both on and off campus.

CMM will remain closely involved in the centre going forward and will have a seat on a new Aboriginal Student Success Advisory Committee set up under the new partnership with Dal.

“We are now laying the foundation for more of our youth to have the support that they may need while pursing post-secondary education,” says Donald M. Julien, CMM’s executive director, of the new position and centre. “And there is no better investment than that.”


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