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For Anita Metallic, a Mi'kmaq who lives eight hours north of Montreal in Listuguj, Quebec, starting a Bachelor's degree in social work at McGill this fall will be a major life change.
"It's a big commitment, leaving my family and my community," said Metallic, a youth and community services counsellor.
But, after attending the School of Social Work's recent orientation session for First Nations and Inuit Students, Metallic said the challenge of adjusting to academic social work studies and university life in a new city didn't seem nearly as daunting as it had.
"I now know what to expect, so I won't be so shocked come the fall," she said during a roundtable discussion on the last day of the two-week orientation. "I'm looking forward to it now, rather than being afraid of it."
Along with Metallic, five other First Nations students who will begin studies at the SSW in September also attended the session, which consisted of mini-lectures on social work studies topics, field visits to possible practicum sites and practical advice on student life at McGill.
Melissa Montour, a Mohawk from Kahnawake who will also start her Bachelor's at the SSW this fall, said she learned a lot during the two-week introduction to social work studies at McGill. "It was very helpful. It gave a lot of insight into what the program is about and what they expect. It also gives you a sense of comfort, to be among your own people and to share your culture," she said.
According to Oonagh Aitken, a co-organizer of the session and, since February, member of a steering committee working to revamp the SSW's programs for First Nations and Inuit Students, the newly-launched orientation is part of a larger effort to better respond to the social work education and research needs of First Nations communities.
"We're rethinking what we're going to do, in terms of what comes after the [SSW's recently discontinued] certificate programs [for First Nations and Inuit students]. We're looking at having more culturally appropriate content within the social work curriculum generally," Aitken said. That content could include everything from anti-oppression social work to indigenous healing techniques.
"We're trying to recruit more First Nations and Inuit students to come to the regular Bachelor of Social Work program and that's what this [orientation session] is about," said Aitken, adding the session was made possible with support from the Dean of Arts' Development Fund.
The session's coordinator, Tracy Blumenstein, suggested the new curriculum might also include an integrated seminar and tutorials focusing on First Nations and Inuit issues, as well as a mentoring program. "We have people in the community in Kahnawake who are interested in mentoring students. That'll be quite different for us," she said.