I am a student advisor (both academic and career advising) at a small aboriginal college in Vancouver B.C., Native Education College. The issue I have with describing a non-traditional student affairs path is that I have very little reference for what a traditional path is; there are so many routes to the field, at least among my colleagues here in Canada. Mine may have been a little unusual, though.
My plan when I went to University was to be a high school English teacher. There were many reasons my plan changed but most of them come down to being unaware of my options. I went to university thinking I had one option, came to realize that I had three, and wound up taking the first option anyway only to change my direction two years later.
I attended University College of the Fraser Valley, and it was in my second year at UCFV that I met my mentor, Suzanne Klerks- an English professor. She was the first person to broaden my horizon beyond high school teaching, she wanted me to consider grad school and becoming a university professor instead. Before this time I hadn’t even thought that I might be able to teach at that level. It opened a second path in my mind. I started thinking of my future not as a teacher, but as an educator. I feel it was this shift in thinking that led to my leaving teaching.
What I have most in common with other student affairs professionals was that I was a very involved student. The first thing I did at UCFV was to go to the orientation session. There our orientation leader mentioned that they were hiring for the school newspaper. I applied and wound up as the News and Features editor. I was in way over my head, but I managed to stay afloat. This meant that from day one I was very involved in student life, clubs, student government, and all of the various goings on at UCFV; I even joined the university’s academic appeals committee and wound up staying on it for the remainder of my time at UCFV. I went on to be elected to the student government and then started working with student life, both as a volunteer and later as a job. I ran and participated in a number of clubs, helped throw parties, organized events big and small and generally had a blast; I was even part of the first leadership training group at our school. I also met the woman I would later marry.
I had a mentor on the student life side of things who got me involved in volunteering for everything, even though I’m most comfortable in very small groups. She helped me find a great summer job doing event management, which I did for three years. She was the one who suggested that I might find student life more enjoyable than student government. And she was the one who suggested that I might look into a job like hers, student affairs. That had never occurred to me. I knew it was a profession, but I didn’t realize how big it was, or how varied. All I saw was the extrovert portion which, while fun, was not something I could see myself doing for a career. At this point I was focused on high school teaching, and a part of me wanted to be a high school academic advisor. I didn’t realize yet that advising and student life were two sides of the same profession.
Not realizing that there was actually a career field that focused around my interests and passions and that didn’t require me to be an extrovert, I graduated and moved to University of British Columbia’s bachelor of education program.
I loved education, but what I didn’t love was the day-to-day teaching. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t my passion. My passion was for working with students outside of class to help them figure out what they wanted to do and help them to explore their interests. I ran an after school theatre tech program at my practicum school; I worked with students figuring out what universities they might want to go into; I helped students find the reason in themselves to focus on education, and that was what I loved.
In my final semester at UBC I took an Aboriginal literature course that was cross listed as a master’s level course. That course changed my whole career trajectory.
The Aboriginal literature class was an eye opener. Packed into the seven week intensive summer course was an entire history lesson for me. Everything from the banning of the Potlatch to the reasons for, evolution of and worst parts of residential schools. I learned some of the basic protocols of the longhouse (enough for me not to make a major faux pas during the class) and learned the most important lesson I have ever learned in seven years of working in Aboriginal education: there is no one Aboriginal experience. Rather than the smoothly flowing fabric of interwoven cultures I expected, I found just as much difference between Sto:Lo and Anishinabe culture as between English and Persian culture.
I graduated from UBC and began looking for work. I was looking at the First Nations School Association as well as the main school system and found Stein Valley Nlakapamux School in Lytton B.C.. I was hired because I had done a great deal of work with the new English 12: First Peoples curriculum during my Aboriginal literature class.
In addition to the classes I taught, I also acted as the career and education counselor, helping students look into various schools and planning out their futures. Luckily, there were only about twenty grade 11/12 students. I spent a great deal of my time learning how to be an advisor. I loved it. And yet I still hadn’t realized that it would eventually be my full time job. If I thought I had learned a bit about Aboriginal and First Nations culture and history during my time at UBC, I was mistaken. Stein Valley was an even greater learning curve. I read local histories and fables, talked with elders from the area and with elders from other parts of the country. I learned how to cook indigenous dishes and even how to preserve my own salmon and venison. It was during this time that I decided to focus on Aboriginal education. I went to First Nations-focused educational events and conferences, read literature on Aboriginal education and started planning out what my next steps could be.
After my year at Stein Valley I got married, left my job and moved to where my wife lived. I was hired by Native Education College to teach adult basic education classes in Vancouver on the downtown eastside working with the downtown community court primarily for people who were living in the local shelters. It was here that I realized how much I enjoyed working with adults, though I was still looking for work in high schools, mostly in the First Nations school system. I worked with one student in particular who was a reformed drug dealer, and we spent a great deal of time going over career options education requirements showing him how he could get his life on track with legal work. Working there made me realize just how different the experience of rural and urban Aboriginal students was, even just a three hour drive away from each other.
As my contract was coming to an end, NEC posted a student advisor position at the main campus. I was loving working with adults and thought I’d like to give academic advising a try, as I’d enjoyed doing that as part of my other jobs. It was a perfect fit for me. I got to do all of the parts of teaching I loved and none of the parts I didn’t like as much. I was hooked. Part way through my first year, I started thinking that maybe I could do this long term instead of just until I found a high school teaching position.
It was just before my first anniversary in the position that I went to CACUSS for the first time. And I found my people. It was eye opening. I met so many people who cared about the same things, came from such varied backgrounds, and helped me to understand that this wasn’t just a job for me, this was my career. It’s been a long and winding trip, but through my love of Aboriginal education I found my second love: student affairs.