One of the most striking features about the Aboriginal Student Services Centre (ASSC) is the silence.
Even when dozens of students occupy the centre during exam season, the silence catches you off guard, says Shana Dion, director of the centre.
But don’t mistake the centre’s tranquility for a lack of student interest. Nestled on the second floor of the Students’ Union Building, ASSC is a home away from home for many of the aboriginal students on the University of Alberta campus.
The lobby of the Aboriginal Student Services Centre
“I think a lot of our students struggle with that disconnect from community,” Dion says. “From them leaving from wherever they’re coming from — whether that be as far away as Newfoundland or even it’s from a First Nations community within this province — it’s that disconnect away from family, friends, and community.”
The centre’s services are based on a holistic model, catering to students’ mental, emotional and spiritual needs. While ASSC offers services typical of a student centre — advising, housing, and tutoring programs — it also fulfills the unique needs of aboriginal students.
The centre, for example, features a smudge and meditation room where students to burn medicines such as sage and sweetgrass, to help them set aside negativity and bring a "pure heart" to the tasks ahead. ASSC also offers access to cultural events and elders, which are an important resource for students, according to Dion.
“I always say we do heart work and we do hard work,” Dion says. “The heart work comes from being from community and knowing how much I want for these students every single day. The hard work is maintaining the centre and making sure that everything we’re doing is fully funded — that we have true access to our students.”
A recent donation has ensured that Dion and her team can continue to support the students at ASSC. The donation provides full funding for Dion's three top programs for the next five years: providing new students with a U of A backpack and care package each fall, having food and other snacks available anytime a student visits the centre, and hosting regular stew and bannock get togethers.
"That means for the next five years our students will have access to healthy snacks and will receive a brand new U of A backpack to start of their year right," she says.
“We really want to make sure that they feel that within the centre — that we become their cheerleaders and we become that person for them that makes sure they stay.”