Charlotte Ross: Lifeline for Aboriginal Students at the U of S
By Elizabeth Maier
with permission from
Charlotte Ross is the Coordinator of Academic Programs for Aboriginal students in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been the Coordinator since the position was created in July 1994. It was the first one of its kind within the University -- an Aboriginal Academic Advisor within a college - and rightly so, as the College of Arts and Science boasts an Aboriginal student population of 600 students. While there are many administrative duties involved as Coordinator, Charlotte spends a lot of time talking to Aboriginal students when they first come to the University and throughout their stay. It is also the role of this program to help promote an awareness of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures among faculty, staff and students.
The main purpose of her job is to assist Aboriginal students in the College of Arts and Science plan their academic pursuits. She informs students of all their academic options and career choices in the College of Arts and Science, no matter which degree they are pursuing.
Hailing from relatively small northern communities -- first Molanosa then Weyakwin and finally a larger center - La Ronge, Charlotte was accustomed to dealing with issues on an as-needed basis and not having to pre-book time to be of assistance to those in need. Charlotte believed that she did not require scheduled appointments - students and/or staff could just drop in whenever they needed assistance when she first started working at the University. After many weeks of long line-ups, she finally relented and resorted to pre-booking afternoon appointments for students - a previously unfamiliar concept - in order to better manage the great demand for services. She still likes to keep mornings open for drop-ins though - perhaps a connection to her traditional upbringing.
At the same time, Charlotte provides confidential counselling for Aboriginal students as they struggle with difficulties in a system that can seem intimidating and unfriendly. Charlotte provides advice, support and help in understanding the registration system, procedure for adding or dropping classes, funding information and for information on other support systems available to Aboriginal students. Sometimes students come to visit informally or are in need of a "safe place" to share their experiences both within the university and within their personal lives.
Her own experiences as a student helped to prepare her for the greatest challenge - coming south to Saskatoon to attend university. She was the first in her family to attend university and graduated in 1988 with a BA (Honours) in Native Studies. She can empathize with students who are experiencing loneliness, isolation and transitional difficulties not only to Saskatoon but to the university climate.
She says that the Aboriginal Caucus has raised the need for identifying students all across campus so that services and programs can be better provided. Unless a student is in a program that already has program identification such as ITEP or SUNTEP, students really just float through the system.
Often frustrated by the system...she feels that the institution is slow to make changes to alleviate some of the pressure. "The U of S was created in 1907, that's 92 years ago, so why don't we have an infrastructural system that properly supports Aboriginal students from the point of admission to registration to retention to graduation and ultimately to alumni? Aboriginal students are currently entering the system anonymously and leaving the same way."
There are issues unique to Aboriginal students that, according to Charlotte Ross, need specific care and attention. There are incidents of racism, feelings of not belonging and issues where Aboriginal students feel isolated and alone. She stresses that things like social gatherings, support and contact with someone who speaks your language can make a huge difference in the university experience.
Charlotte explained that students slip between the cracks because as yet there is no system in place to identify and keep track of the over 600 Aboriginal students registered in the College of Arts and Science and the estimated 2000 Aboriginal students on campus overall. This means that there is no efficient way of letting students know about the help and support available to them. She says that the Aboriginal Caucus has raised the need for identifying students all over campus. She makes it clear that she often sees students in crisis when it is more difficult to address the issues they are facing. She stresses the need for ongoing contact so those problems are dealt with as they arise.
"There is a real need for preventative work, and ongoing support systems. Aboriginal systemic issues are being raised to the level of awareness but how much longer will it take for action to happen?" Charlotte remarks of the institution that "If you don't admit that there is a white elephant in the living room then you can remain in denial that it is there," and half-jokingly points out that perhaps she should call it a "brown elephant."
She says, "I see myself as a translator...as a go-between for students and their programs." Providing choices on everything from time management to marital/family problems to single parenting to childcare to essay writing or exam preparation to career choices are all in a day's work.
She suggests that the institutional policy should focus on being more responsive to the needs of Aboriginal students - and that process has started with the Dean's Council Retreat in June but it will take time for people to respond with recommendation and actions.
Charlotte follows and practices her traditional Cree ceremonies and teachings and believes the Creator placed her in this position to learn, to help and to challenge. Her beliefs and values strongly anchor her to the need for this valuable position within the university.
She says "Don't ever give up, you are not alone; there are many of us who have been there also but who are working to make your experience more worthwhile within the university. If you would like to share your experiences, need assistance or simply want to establish contact, please come in. Tawaw!"