Cree students looking to attend CEGEP down south are in for a pleasant surprise: a new pilot program called Cree Pathways will help them integrate into their new surroundings more smoothly than ever before.

“My job is to assist the students with their tutoring and homework and to ease the transition between community life and college life,” explained Darlene Wapachee, the second-year Pedagogical Counsellor at John Abbott College, where the program is being offered.

“Sometimes they come here and they’re not sure how college works. They don’t realize that they can pick their own courses and that they have to be in class on time. Even to find their classrooms is a big feat because it’s such a big campus. So during the orientation we took them to show them where their class was. The first two weeks are the critical weeks. That’s the make-or-break period.”

Wapachee also said that the students are pre-registered so they can be put in the same classes. Once they get to know each other by hanging out in the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre, it helps to have a familiar face in class.

The Pathways Program, a Cree School Board initiative, is run in collaboration with the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre. A recent visit by the Nation had students from the neighbouring Mohawk communities of Kahnawake and Kanesatake freely mingling with their northern cousins.

They played a game designed to break the ice where one person got up and asked a question such as, “Who has been to a concert?” Everyone who had been to a concert must then get up and switch chairs. The students enjoyed it and they shared many laughs within their group of new friends.

They also played bingo, but with a twist. Students had to find someone from Mistissini, someone who has children and a student who speaks French, to name a few. Unfortunately, no one got a full card, because one of the tasks was to find someone who had never been on a plane. That proved impossible.

“We wanted to make sure they knew that we’re here for them and that if they have a problem, they should come see us right away,” said Wapachee. “We want to build a relationship right from the start. The new students are the ones we want to make sure feel comfortable here and to make sure their college experience is a positive one.”

To promote the Pathways Program, Wapachee traveled to career fairs in Waswanipi, Waskaganish and Oujé-Bougoumou. The visits proved very successful. This year, the College boasts an all-time high of 80 Aboriginal students, including 20 Crees.

“It’s been in the works for a long time,” she said. “We knew we had to do something for our Cree students, because as soon as they come to college, it’s too overwhelming so they end up failing their first semester.”

Wapachee is studying Human Relations at Concordia University to go along with her major in Psychology. She hopes to one day be a guidance counselor. Wapachee talked about working with the guidance counselors at the schools in Eeyou Istchee to gauge the interest in applying to John Abbott and to make sure the students have the pre-requisites such as French before they apply.

“There’s one particular class called career exploration where the students find out what they like to do and what type of personality they are and their different career options,” said Wapachee. “It gives them a better picture as to what program they want to do once they are done Pathways. They’re young, 17, 18, so they aren’t sure where they want to go or what they want to do.

“One major adjustment is the amount of reading and writing there is here compared to high school,” she said. “This one-year Pathways Program helps them so when they enter a program they’re interested in; they’re more likely to succeed. The credits they gain in Pathways will go towards any deck they want to do. So if they take English or French, it’s not a waste, they will get credit for it.”

Suzanne Smith has been teaching at John Abbott College since 1976. She found her true calling when, in 1997, she moved over to the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre as Coordinator. She said special adjustments for Cree students have been happening for 17 years.

“In 1989 there were 10 Cree students who came into the Nursing Program,” she said. “We realized that we didn’t really know about their Cree culture to assist the students. That was when we got a special project going with the Cree School Board and the Minister of Education. Starting in 1990, we formed a special support group for Cree students to help them while they took the regular program,” said Smith, who hails from nearby Senneville.

“We let the students and the parents and the educators tell us what their needs are. Not the other way around. We listen and go to career fairs and that’s how we develop our specialized programs and everything we offer in the Resource Centre.”

According to Smith, 5,700 students from 85 countries attend John Abbott, so the difficulty Cree students have is not foreign to the faculty.

Part of John Abbott’s attraction is their ability to adapt on the fly and encourage specific needs programs for many different cultures, such as Cree Pathways. The college also holds a cultural day where students are encouraged to put their language and culture on display for all to see.

“My dream is to have an Aboriginal person running this and we’re on our way with Darlene being here full time,” said Smith, who added that she could identify with the Cree students when they come down south and are thrown into a foreign atmosphere. She felt the same thing when she visited the north the first few times. She literally got lost out on the land.

Wapachee, who is from Mistissini but grew up in Val d’Or, is looking forward to the coming year.

“We’re hoping that they will all succeed, but there’s always a few that slip through your hands because they’re not ready. For some people, no matter how much you supply them with, they’re not mentally ready or motivated to be here. There’s only so much you can do. So they will fail and then a couple years later they might come back, but at least they’ll know we’re here.”