As the month and days to graduation grew closer, panic started to set in,” said Sarah Arseneault, in front of the crowd in the Alaqsite’w Gitpu School gym on June 30th.
Sarah is the class-elected valedictorian of the very first University course offered in Listuguj. The Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies (BACS), offered through the Cape Breton University, began in 2013. Nineteen of the original 23 students graduated this year.
“This program was truly a collective achievement,” said Dr. Fred Metallic, at the convocation. “We don’t learn by ourselves, we learn from – and with – each other.”
The number of classes taught by Listuguj teachers is a definite point of pride for those involved in developing the program. There are many points to be proud of.
The program was also tailored specifically for Listuguj. The schedule was meant to accommodate mature students, with all the commitments of adult life. Without saying it outright, the program essentially “Indigenized” mainstream courses. For example – Mi’gmaq History was offered instead of a standard history course.
“Many students learned for the first time about their Mi’gmaq identity, history, and language,” said Sandra Germain, who assisted in the coordination the BACS program part-time. “All those little pieces help to make the program belong to the students and to the community.”
Germain is also the coordinator of the Mi’kmaq Maliseet Bachelor of Social Work Program (MMBSW) at St. Thomas University. She is passionate about adult learning – having earned her own Masters at 50 years old. Through her experience, she was well aware of some of the obstacles for the community.
“I had been noticing for a number of years that the people in Listuguj had an interest in the Bachelor of Social Work program, however, they did not meet the prerequisites,” she said. The BBSW requires a Bachelor Degree. And earning one use to mean leaving home.
This was part of the motivation to bring a University program to the community, instead of bringing community members to the universities. And while there was a clear desire to bring in a program – it had to be done right.
“We wanted to maintain control of the program and not simply have them deliver their style of programming in the community,” said Germain. This led to many negotiations, and many aspects still left to improve on.
But Germain calls the BACS program “unprecedented.” The high percentage of graduates makes it clear that the program’s approach has hit on something.
“You can’t compare [traditional programs to] First Nations students working and learning with First Nations students,” Germain said. “I think that’s how we learn best.”
The trend has been set – a second University Degree will be offered in the community, starting this fall. McGill University will be offering a Bachelor of Education. Some of the BACS graduates have enrolled. So clearly the BACS program left a positive impression.
“There might have been times when we wanted to strangle each other,” continued Arseneault, with her classmates in the front rows. “And we may not have always agreed on things. But when it came down to it, we were there for each other, and always will be.
How amazing is it to have the opportunity of completing a university degree in our own community! Today graduates – we make history. We are showing the people of our community that something like this is possible.”