THUNDER BAY - Grade 12 student, Yesenia Cheekinew of Surrey, B.C., dreams of helping fight for the rights of Indigenous people across Northern Ontario and the nation. On her first day participating in the Shad Valley Program at Lakehead University, Yesenia already has new ideas and perspectives on how she will achieve her dream.
“I feel like there’s still a lot of injustice,” she said. “For me, as a First Nations student, I feel like there is not enough being done for truth and reconciliation for Indigenous communities. I want to be a part of that and help fight for human rights.”
Yesenia is one of 65 students from across the country participating in the Shad Valley program at Lakehead University. Students will live and learn at the local campus for four weeks, being exposed to lessons on entrepreneurship, science, technology, and engineering.
“The idea is to give these exceptional youth a transformational experience,” said Lakehead Shad Valley program director, Sultan Siddiqui. “It’s really to broaden their horizons and it gives them a university experience. For many of the young people, when they start off at university, they are kind of lost and they don’t know how to find their own way. This is a safe and secure environment and they get to see the university.”
Lakehead has been involved in the Shad Valley program since 1999. Students undergo an extensive selection process, which includes recommendations from student councils. Some students also work to cover their own fees, while others are funded through sponsorships or their respective school.
“The idea is to take them out of their comfort zone,” Siddiqui said. “It’s a process of self-discovery and I think removing them from their comfort zone is very important for those skills to emerge.”
Yesenia arrived in Thunder Bay on Sunday and in that short time, her perspective has already been expanded after attending a seminar led by two local Indigenous people who discussed their struggles with racism and discrimination.
“I’m doing a speech on the Indigenous housing crisis,” Yesenia said. “They talked about it and it helped me already to make my presentation better and has already pushed me further. When I heard them talk about their struggles here, I want to fight, it made me want to fight with them to get their rights as well.”
Grade 11 student, Tristan Salomon de Friedberg of Labrador, said he is still deciding what he wants his future to look like, but he is hoping his experiences at Shad Valley will expose him to different career opportunities.
“I’m hoping I will get exposed to get different jobs I wouldn’t normally encounter in my home town,” he said. “Where I am from, it’s a mining town so you meet a lot of engineers and superintendents. I want to see if there is a whole new field of employment out there.”
While the Shad Valley program is focused on academia and learning, it also provides a unique opportunity for students to meet new people, forge new friendships, and learn a little bit more about who they are.
“It was the opportunity I could see it would open up for me and it’s a chance to meet likeminded people who you don’t usually meet,” Tristan said. “And it’s been a great experience so far meeting all those likeminded kids.”
The 65 students at Lakehead will be participating in workshops, seminars, group projects, and recreational activities throughout their four week stay, which will include an excursion to the Sleeping Giant.
“At Lakehead, our program is known for our academic side and we also have a very good recreational side, especially being surrounded by a good natural environment here,” Siddiqui said.
And it’s not just the students who leave the program every year with new perspectives and experiences.
“My colleagues keep asking me: why do you keep doing this program, what do you get out of this program?” Siddiqui said. “It reenergizes me. Interacting with young people, they are really enthusiastic and full of energy, it really gives you a positive outlook in life and I am one of those lucky people who get this every year.”
And as Yesenia believes, programs like Shad help foster the talents of young people, preparing them not only for entering university, but helping to change the world.
“For Young people, if they get a head start on these issues, it can make such a big change in the future,” she said.