Gifts of caring

Sometimes, it just takes a small gesture of caring to help a student in need.

Bridget Stirling - 13 October 2015

Sometimes, it just takes a small gesture of caring to help a student in need. As part of the University of Alberta's Giving Day in support of student mental health, we're sharing our story of how Native Studies has found a simple way to help.

When students come into academic adviser Freda Cardinal's office, they're often looking for more than just a hand with registering for a course. Although her official role is to look after the enrolment processes and help students navigate their way through their degree programs, students also come looking for someone to help them navigate a more complex path-how to survive student life and deal with the stresses of balancing academics with other challenges.

Similarly, Jodi Stonehouse, who does recruitment and community outreach, sees a lot of the students as they pass by her office downstairs next to the Gathering Place, the lounge where students gather to study and socialize. A well-known public figure and host of the popular Acimowin radio program on CJSR, Jodi is a familiar and friendly face for many students. Jodi also knows their stresses on a personal level-she's also completing her master's degree while juggling her job, community work and personal commitments to her family.

Both women wrestled with how best to help when they saw a student in need. Sometimes it was a matter of a referral to support services at the Aboriginal Student Services Centre or a practical suggestion like the Campus Food Bank. But other times, what students seemed to need was a little love. How could they find a gesture to reach out and show they cared?

In such a close-knit faculty with a student population of about 160 (smaller than some first-year classes in other faculties), the staff and faculty members in Native Studies often form relationships with their students and can see when they are struggling. What if staff and faculty had access to a care package they could give to students who needed a bit of comfort and some tools for simple self-care? An idea was born.

Over the following weeks, a group of support staff got on board, gathering materials to put into a box that could be used to build a personalized package for a student in need. Into the box went a container of teas, a stack of journals and pens, some herbal bath salts and other small, comforting items.

But one of the most powerful and meaningful pieces for some students was yet to be added. One summer day, a small group of women went out to a staff member's family's traditional territory and picked sweetgrass.* They brought it back and sat around the lunchroom table, twisting it lovingly into small braids that could be wrapped in fabric and added to the packages for students who choose to smudge, along with a book of matches and an instruction sheet on how to use it appropriately.

As they worked, they talked about the story of the faculty and its students-the challenges sometimes faced by young people far from their homes in small remote communities or in another country, the struggle for parents trying to raise a child while they finished a degree, the pain sometimes as the courses looked at the legacy of intergenerational trauma students could see in their own families, or sometimes, just the simple stress of exams. They talked about community and shared their own journeys and lives with the faculty. One of the most powerful things about a small faculty like Native Studies is the ability to create relationships that reach across the years and the usual divide between faculty members, staff and students to create a whole community that can care for the wellness of each member.

Cardinal explains how a care package like this can help a student: "Having been on the receiving end of something very similar (many many years ago) it was not only greatly appreciated, but it also gave me the strength to persevere during a difficult time. I felt I had a community of support. That's one of our purposes with the care packages-students knowing they have support and a community when they really need it."

Now, when a student looks like they need a little extra love and support, staff and faculty have a simple tool to help them reach out. When they build a package for a student, it also gives them the chance to show caring and listen to what that student needs. That little connection is the best part of the gift-another piece to show that students belong and that they matter.

Where to go for support

If you need support, you can reach out for help in lots of ways.

  • The Dean of Students Office has a list of campus support services open to all U of A students.
  • The Aboriginal Student Services Centre provides support for Indigenous students.
  • Anytime day or night, The Support Network offers a distress line at 780-482-HELP (4357).
  • If someone is at immediate risk, call 911 or U of A Protective Services at 780-492-5050.

* Please note: The people whose traditional land was where the sweetgrass was gathered asked that the location not be disclosed to ensure the site is protected from inappropriate harvesting or overuse. We recognize their desire to protect the site for future generations and thank them for their generosity in sharing this gift with the Faculty of Native Studies.