Gifts for a new school year

(Edmonton) Larissa Cunningham is almost glowing, she’s so excited about arriving at the University of Alberta. The first-year Aboriginal nursing student starts her classes this week, armed with a new backpack and an exhilarating sense of adventure.

“I never thought I could do this on my own, but when I got here, I felt independent, strong,” said the 17-year-old.

Larissa and her cousin, Genneah Cunningham, 19, travelled from their tiny northern Alberta community to attend the U of A; Larissa plans to become a pediatric nurse and Genneah starts her third year of an arts degree in French and English, on the way to studying law.

The beaming pair, both members of the Duncan's First Nation located near Peace River, dropped in to a welcome-back-to-school event hosted by the university’s Aboriginal Student Services Centre last week in the main gym at the Van Vliet Centre. There, students were invited to check out what programs and services are available to them, enjoy snacks, and to collect 200 new backpacks, courtesy of generous campus and personal donors.

The annual event, highlighted by the giveaway, sends a message of support to new and returning students, said Shana Dion, director of the Aboriginal Student Services Centre.

“We want them to feel that they belong at the U of A, and can share in U of A pride,” she said. Using backpacks sporting the university logo is a common-sense way to help students and to build a sense of campus community, she added. “They carry their lives in their backpacks while they are here.”

The backpacks, filled with useful pamphlets and goodies such as a campus cowbells, were donated this year by the Faculty of Education, the National-Aboriginal Recruitment Initiative of the registrar’s office, Ernie Ingles, vice-provost; and Wanda Whitford, administrator of the Indigenous Health Initiatives Program and Jill Konkin, both of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Each sporting their black U of A packs, the Cunninghams say they are pumped for the academic year. As the only youths in their community to attend the U of A this year, both are glad they took the steps to get here.

Larissa sees the start of the school year as the beginning of a new phase of her life. “I came here because I am determined, and I love that. I also feel like I’m part of a bigger thing, to be able to see how it is, growing up, having independence, but also so much fun.”

As a returning student, Genneah is starting to relish the sense of accomplishment, which is becoming tantalizingly this close to graduation. I’m almost finished my degree and I’m not even 20 yet. It feels really good!”