York sends recruiters to world’s biggest powwow

Jarret Leaman at York booth in AlbuquerqueIf you want to recruit more Aboriginal students to York, nothing beats setting up a table at the biggest powwow in North America.

The annual Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque draws tens of thousands of visitors from across the continent at the end of April each year. Many come from the nearby Navajo Nation reservation, home to about 175,000. “It’s a great opportunity” to promote York, says Jarret Leaman, York’s new Aboriginal relations liaison.

Right: Jarret Leaman at York booth in Albuquerque

So, for the first time, York’s Office of Aboriginal Student Services sent him and Aboriginal student recruiter Lisa Charleyboy (BA Hons. ’10) to the three-day festival in New Mexico last weekend. As it turns out, York was the only Canadian university among a few American colleges trying to entice young Aboriginals to enroll.

“Our table, honestly, was swamped,” said Leaman, who used to recruit for Queen’s and Trent universities. Over two days, they gave away 1,000 Aboriginal recruitment handbooks and 500 York bags. “We got a great response,” he said, especially from students who’d travelled due south from Canada’s western provinces. “A lot were asking about graduate studies.”

Star power lured many to the table. Leaman, who freelances as a contemporary-dance performer. In Albuquerque, he invited two of his entertainer pals, Twilight series actor Andrew Orozco (he was in Lisa Charleyboy (left) with Ashley Callingbull at York's powwow in Marchthe Quileute wolf pack) and popular Saskatchewan musician Jacob Pratt, to hang around with him at the York booth. It was a winning strategy. The young men who had posed for a 2011 calendar featuring prominent Native American actors and artists acted like magnets, posing for photographs against the York logo backdrop.

Left: Lisa Charleyboy (left) with Ashley Callingbull at York’s powwow in March

Orozco could be the star attraction at York’s powwow next March, just as Ashley Callingbull, 2010 Miss Universe Canada, was this year (see YFile March 3, 2011).

In Albuquerque, Charleyboy was the other star attraction. Fans flocked to talk to the fashionista and author of the popular blog, “Urban Native Girl Stuff, Pop Culture with an Indigenous Twist”. “She’s putting her degree to good use,” says Leaman. Charleyboy studied professional writing at York.

Charleyboy’s fame also won her an invitation to walk the red carpet as a presenter at the Saturday evening awards ceremony – and a chance for Leaman, her “plus-one”, to make valuable contacts at the media table where he was seated. “Even outside the booth, we were still representing the school.”

At York’s table in the bustling Indian traders’ market, Leaman and Charleyboy talked up Toronto to largely urban-based native students from the United States. They told prospective recruits about social, academic and financial support for Aboriginal students at York and cheaper tuition fees.

The two are urging York to recognize the Jay Treaty, a 19th-century agreement giving North American Twilight series actor Andrew Orozco with a fan at York boothNatives the right to travel and work legally anywhere in Canada and the United States. If that happens, Native students from the US would not be charged international tuition fees but qualify for Canadian rates.

Left: Twilight series actor Andrew Orozco with a fan at York booth

“It’s a real problem for Native students to access education because of the expense,” says Charleyboy. By enabling this policy, York would be helping educate a population that usually can’t afford it. “This would be a real bridge to our friends in the United States,” she says.

In Canada, only the University of Guelph honours the Jay Treaty, offering tuition for US-based Native students at local rates, says Charleyboy. “We want York to do this,” she says. Recognizing the treaty would allow York to penetrate the American market faster and make it the leading Canadian university recruiter of Aboriginal students south of the border.

That could mean annual trips to the Gathering of Nations. Meanwhile, Leaman and Charleyboy spend eight months on the road going to powwows, visiting high schools in  cities – especially Toronto – and remote northern communities to encourage Aboriginal students to go on to university. At York, there are 400 Aboriginal students who have self-identified and probably many more. Charleyboy aims to boost that number to 1,000.

There’s a lot of work to do. Ontario aims to boost general enrolment in postsecondary schools to 70 per cent. Currently 32 per cent of non-Aboriginals have bachelor degrees compared to nine per cent of Aboriginals. “That’s a huge gap,” says Leaman.

“Our goal is to make York a school of destination for Toronto Aboriginal students,” says Leaman. Saskatchewan singer Jacob Pratt.York has a transition program and many services geared to Aboriginal student success. “We have an accessible path.”

Right: Saskatchewan singer Jacob Pratt. Photo from www.jacobpratt.ca

Leaman is doing something else to encourage Aboriginal students to enroll in college and university. He and former Trent colleague Adam Hopkins have designed a new website for the Aboriginal Postsecondary Information Program (APSIP), a repository of admissions information at 25 postsecondary schools from Quebec to Manitoba, but mostly in Ontario, which has the biggest Aboriginal population in Canada. Leaman, who holds bachelor and master’s degrees in business administration and industrial relations, drafted the governance policies for the website, which could go live by June.

For APSIP, Leaman has travelled this vast region with a team of other Aboriginal student recruiters from other postsecondary schools talking to 5,000-7,000 high-school students a year. “With the website, I hope we can reach more students in difficult-to-reach areas.”

In April, he and Hopkins talked about the community-based team approach to postsecondary recruitment of Aboriginal students, at the Strategic Enrolment Marketing & Management Forum. Rather than competing with each other, recruiters from different institutions work together. “We’re trying to find the school that is the best fit for the Aboriginal student. That’s why we go out as a team. We tell them how we got into university, how we all suffer from the residential-schools effect. A lot of us are first-generation graduates. We tell them, this is what I needed. Institutions offer different services.”

Given how few Aboriginal students pursue a postsecondary education, “it’s not whether you need to go to York or somewhere else,  it’s that you just need to go.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributor