They produced their own news stories, crafted steel sculptures and worked wonders with wood — 25 youth from Meskanahk Ka Nipa Wit School, Montana First Nations, just got a two-week taste of student life at SAIT.
The students — ages 13 to 17 — were on campus through their school’s Youth Education and Career Pathways (YECP) program. Over 11 years, the program has made half a dozen stops at SAIT, along with visits to NAIT, the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University.
“An experience like this gives youth a good snapshot into life as a post-secondary student,” says Rozlynn Wick, Strategic Youth Initiatives Coordinator, Learner and Academic Services. “They live on campus, away from family, have to wake up on time and go to a class every day — it’s different. Even eating meals away from home is a new experience for some young people.”
Students can participate in the YECP program for up to four years, with an option to become a mentor — or junior chaperone — for an additional year. All participating students earned their spot at camp through consistent daily attendance throughout the school year.
“Our students love this program — it really means something to them,” says Sandi Heimer, program coordinator with the Meskanahk Ka Nipa Wit School in central Alberta. “They look forward to it all year long and take it very seriously.”
Testing the waters
The students lived on campus for the first two weeks of July and had the opportunity to get hands-on with a welding torch and a variety of carpentry tools, and to get behind the camera — creating their own video broadcasts and movies.
“We’re trying to provide a stepping stone for these kids,” says Tim Longjohn, a chaperone with the program. “We want them to realize they can do this, to get that little bit of confidence that will help them to keep going with their education.”
Helping students connect the dots between junior high, high school and what comes next is a goal shared by SAIT’s youth initiatives portfolio.
“There’s great value in collaborating with our community through learning partnerships like this one,” says Tom Bornhorst, Associate Vice President, Learner and Academic Services. “We want to help youth from across the province experience what’s out there and find their fit.”
Taking the first step
A number of camp participants have completed the four-year program and gone onto post-secondary studies and other training — a trend students like Jakobi Rabbit are planning to continue.
“Before the program, I thought I wouldn’t go to university or even finish high school,” says Rabbit. “But it let me see all the different options there are — like photography and broadcasting. That’s something I want to do with my life now.”
Coming full circle
After four years as a participant, Rabbit is now a fifth-year junior chaperone and likes the idea of paying his experience forward.
“I want to see other kids do more with the program and succeed in life,” he says. “I want to see more aboriginal students attend school — to see there’s more to life than staying on the reservation.”
That’s something that also resonates with classmate Haley Samson.
“It’s my fourth year in the program and next year I’ll be a chaperone,” says Samson. “I want to finish the final year, be a role model for my younger siblings and see other kids finish too.”
A place to call home
The continued growth of the program — which started with only 11 students — is something both Heimer and Longjohn credit to a network of support ranging from funding agencies and the Chief in Council to instructors, chaperones, coordinators, parents and the students themselves.
“We’re supported in all the right areas,” says Heimer. “Actually, one of the reasons we keep coming back to SAIT is Chinook Lodge.
“When the kids come into the Lodge, things feel familiar and that sends a message: there’s a place for you here — that who you as an Indigenous student are is important and respected.”