In the Blackfoot culture, the circle represents all things connected in the universe: the four directions, the four seasons, the four elements, the four sacred medicines. The circular design of tipis promotes face-to-face communication, discussion and decision-making.
It’s perhaps fitting that student mentors in the Scotiabank First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) Mentorship program in the U of L’s Faculty of Management often come “full circle.”
Recognizing the challenges FNMI students face, this visionary program was launched in 2012 aiming to break down barriers to their education. It encourages First Nations youth to complete high school and pursue post-secondary studies. It is beginning to see successes as the first mentees have completed high school and are attending university this fall.
“For some families, their parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college or university, so it's foreign to them. It really helps for the younger students to have positive role models who are currently attending university,” says Rhonda Crow, coordinator, First Nations Governance in the Faculty of Management.
The mentorship program is unique in the broad range of students it reaches, spanning university to middle school. U of L FNMI alumni serve as mentors to Aboriginal students in the management and pre-management programs. In turn, U of L students pay it forward by providing guidance to middle school and senior high FNMI students in Lethbridge, as well as schools on the reserve. A recent addition to the program includes invitations to prominent alumni (such as Hon. Jennifer Campeau (BMgt '08), MLA for Saskatoon Fairview) to spend a week on campus as executives-in-residence, speaking to classes, community organizations and local schools.
"Students who are mentored or mentor others are more likely to feel supported and engaged in both the University and local community, and are less likely to drop out," explains Andrea Amelinckx, director and faculty member in the U of L’s First Nations Governance program.
Fifth-year U of L student Alison Frank can further attest to this, having seen first hand the true impact of the FNMI Youth Mentorship program. Frank grew up in a home with six brothers, so when she first heard about the opportunity to mentor youth, she personally wanted to make meaningful connections with younger girls, in addition to gaining valuable real-life work experience. Frank was paired with three students who were in middle school at the time.
"It was a little bit tough in the beginning because, with teenagers, you have to develop a level of trust. However, as I started getting to know them, a relationship and eventually a friendship formed. I talked to them weekly, sometimes even daily," recalls Frank. "It gave me little sisters, something I've always wanted."
During the next three years, Frank connected with the girls through group activities like bowling and going to the movies, but there was always a greater underlying purpose.
"I'm an education major, so it was really important to me to empower them to go to, and stay, in school, to show them that as mentors we are University students and you can be, too."
This past year, Frank watched as all of the girls she had journeyed with were handed high school diplomas.
"I had heard about the good times, as well as the hard times in their lives, and I knew what they had been through. So seeing them graduate brought tears to my eyes. I was so proud of them. It made it all worth it."
Since becoming involved with the program, Frank has moved into a supervisor role and is now in a position where she mentors the mentors.
"We always talk about the fact that you never know who is looking up to you. You have to carry yourself in a manner that reflects how you would want to be seen. As students at the University, we're future leaders, and we have to carry that responsibility," Frank explains.
Included in a group of 20 University student mentors Frank is overseeing, are two of the three girls she originally met all those years ago. Having graduated from high school, the girls are continuing their education at the U of L and have signed up to be mentors themselves.
"It's really come full circle. We're growing with each other through this program," says Frank, with a big smile. "It's a ripple effect, and it's just going to keep getting bigger and bigger. I'm excited to see where it goes."