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High school students spread their wings at U of T’s SOAR program

From left to right, Grade 11 students Lauren Abel and Stacia Nootchtai came to U of T with chaperone Kim Pahpeguish (photo by Hannah James)

From learning how to use a blood pressure cuff to smudging with an elder, Indigenous high school students spent a week at U of T checking out campus life in Canada’s biggest city.

They came from across Alberta and Ontario, from small cities, big cities and First Nations communities, to take part in U of T’s annual SOAR Aboriginal Youth Gathering. The week-long program from March 13 to 17 helped students explore the possibility of pursuing a post-secondary education. 

“I like the way this place feels. It feels really homey,” said Stacia Nootchtai, a Grade 11 student from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, also known as Whitefish Lake First Nation, over breakfast in the Turtle Lounge at U of T's Centre for Indigenous Studies.

The Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE) has been running SOAR since 2009. Open to Indigenous teens aged 14 to 17, the program is funded through the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, guided by U of T’s Council for Aboriginal Initiatives and supported by U of T's First Nations House.

Read more about SOAR

“Each year, we introduce high school students to Indigenous role models – faculty and students – so they can see themselves in a few years coming to higher education,” said Susan Lee, assistant manager of co-curricular diversity & equity at KPE. “It’s just opening up the doors for them to say, 'here’s an opportunity for you'.” 

Lee said a recent study of the SOAR program showed that a high percentage of students referenced their SOAR experience when applying to university, college or for awards. Many went on to complete post-secondary programs in everything from culinary arts to kinesiology to social work.

At U of T last week, students visited various faculties across campus including the Faculty of Medicine and the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work to learn more about what programs are offered.

A main component of SOAR is showing participants that attending university doesn’t mean giving up their culture. The week also included workshops at First Nations House and traditional teachings with U of T Elder Cat Criger.

Nootchtai said she’s thinking about studying visual art – and talking to the SOAR coordinators really opened her mind to new possibilities.

“This gave me ideas of what to do and where to go,” she said. “And, you can incorporate Indigenous studies with your art.

“I just felt at home here. It made me want to come to U of T more than I did before because I actually got to see what everything is like.”

Lauren Abel, a Grade 11 student, said she's also considering going to university.

“I want to help people so maybe I could study health sciences of social work,” she said.

On their last night together, the SOAR group visited the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto for some drumming and dancing.

“It’s always good when you see them enjoying their culture,” said Roy Strebel, a SOAR on-site coordinator and mentor and a fourth-year Indigenous studies specialist student. “It really put a lump in my throat because I was really happy to see them happy and engaging in it.”

Read the Toronto Star story about SOAR