Tahothoratie Cross remembers his first semester of college as being filled with feelings of isolation.
But now he will soon be graduating as a student ambassador who has spent the last four years leading changes at Champlain College Saint-Lambert near Montreal. He hopes it has become a welcoming place for Indigenous students.
"I want to provide these opportunities to students that are coming up so that they don't have to go through those types of experiences of isolation," said Cross, who is a Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) student from Kahnawake, Que.
"It's important for us to do the work while we're here to make sure that students have the best experience that they can."
Cross is a founding member of the Indigenous ambassadors program, which has provided Indigenous students with peer support, mentorship, leadership, and advocacy opportunities since 2016.
It started after he wore a Boston Bruins jersey to class and was stopped in the hallway by David Persons, the financial aid officer at the college's student services. A conversation about hockey jumped to the struggles of isolation Cross was facing, and soon snowballed into gathering a group of other Kahnawake students to discuss improving support on campus.
The program has since grown to include faculty, staff, and community partnerships. Quebec's First Nations Adult Education School Council provides guidance and support.
Tanu Lusignan, executive director of the First Nations Adult Education School Council, said he heard challenges of isolation, barriers linked to the French language, and experiences with faculty and classmates who knew little about about Indigenous people as a whole.
"There was a sense of disconnect," said Lusignan.
"We wanted to reinforce and engage in ensuring that the services available at Champlain were meeting the needs of Indigenous students."
Advocacy on campus
Through the program, the student ambassadors have provided input on curriculum, hosted presentations, organized awareness events, and shared experiences with faculty during professional development training. It's work that they're now paid to do as a result of a partnership with Kahnawake's economic development commission. But, for the students, it's not about the money. They're motivated to see change.
"We were actually given the chance to work with teachers on curriculum and other types of work, which is something that not many students actually get to do," said Cross.
"I think it was something important that as Indigenous students, we were able to voice our opinions on what was actually being taught to students."
For Iekenhnhenhá:wi Alexa Montour, it's about the opportunity to spread awareness of her culture and language. She helped organize a two-week Indigenous awareness event that included a mural, hoop dancing, and guest speakers.
"Sometimes it's hard speaking to people and trying to teach them about us because I'm not a professional in that way. But it's also not hard because I'm so passionate about it," said Montour.
"It comes out from the heart. That's what motivates me to keep doing this."
The efforts of the ambassadors led Champlain College to give a land acknowledgement for the first time at its convocation ceremony, and provide a space for an Indigenous resource centre, along with other long-term commitments.
"The first real success that we had was getting an Indigenous resource centre that was ours. We made it into what we wanted," said Cross.
"We felt that as Indigenous students, one of the things that really lacked at the school was a place for us to feel safe, a place for us to go hang out and be with people that we can connect to."
Hannah McGregor-Pelletier, who is now an Indigenous ambassador from Kahnawake, said the program made an impact on her life as a student.
"I came in knowing that this program was happening, so I felt more comfortable and it helped me grow as a person and has helped me to be more involved," she said.
"It was really nice having fellow community members where I don't have to be on that much alone as I was in classrooms."
Currently, only students from Kahnawake have actively been involved with the program but Cross hopes that expands in the future.
"We've made big strides in changing the culture of Champlain through administration and the teachers, and I hope that continues. But, I think the ultimate goal is that the ambassadors program spreads to the other English colleges in the area," he said.
"I just want to keep seeing it grow and grow. The more Indigenous people that we make feel comfortable in their systems is really beneficial. And the more non-Indigenous people that we can make aware of exactly who we are, I think that's the ultimate goal."