They say big things come in little packages and Shawna Cunningham is a real-life example of this premise.
Cool, poised and confident, the petite new director of the University of Calgary Native Centre has come on board with a wealth of experience and a commitment to enhancing the university experience for aboriginal students.
Originally from Pincher Creek, Cunningham completed her undergraduate degree in drama and Native studies at the University of Lethbridge, followed by a master's degree at the University of Alberta in Native studies. Of Metis descent, Cunningham spent time as an active member of various Native committees and councils during her time as a student. While completing her thesis at Mount Royal College, she was both the student advisor and eventual program director of the Aboriginal Education project, spending a total of seven years in those positions.
"It was just a natural step to go from a college to university," said Cunningham of her new job and responsibilities. "I was attracted by the opportunity to work with the university and the indigenous studies program being developed, to enhance some of the activities already occurring and to broaden some of the programs and services."
The Native Centre currently provides aboriginal students with such services as academic and financial advising, support for award applications and tutorials, and supports the First Nation Students' Association.
"We have a mandate to provide culturally sensitive services to aboriginal students... to provide a place where education and culture intertwine," stated Cunningham. "I plan to sustain those existing services and also develop new services, such as student access programs, an aboriginal student policy and an aboriginal circle advisories committee which would act in the consulting process for the Native Centre to determine their direction and evaluation of the future of the university."
The aboriginal student's policy would be similar to the disabled student policy adopted by the university through the General Faculties Council. The student policy would secure services and resources already in place for aboriginal students and is an indication of the unversity's commitment to the betterment of educational opportunities for aboriginal students.
"Aboriginal people are very community oriented, and a number of students arrive here from isolated communities and have adjustments to make to the big campus and big city," commented Cunningham. "It helps to make students comfortable if they have a place where they can form a community and draw from peer support."
Cunningham hopes to have the aboriginal policy and advisory committees in place in the next three years.
"It's difficult to set a time line because of the need to meet and consult," she laughed. "This is not an overnight process, but something long term... there will certainly be challenges to face."
Whatever the challenges, it seems certain that students can rest assured their Native Centre is in capable hands.