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First Nations House helps Native students succeed

TORONTO ? Native students at the University of Toronto have a place to go for advice on academics, tutoring, scholarships, to use computers, or just to hang out. It's called First Nations House.

There are 400 to 500 Native students at the three university campuses, academic advisor Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo said. About 200 of them will use First Nations House during the course of the school year.

Five full-time and eight part-time employees, under the direction of Anita Benedict, offer Native students a wide range of support. In addition, two elders are in residence and two instructors for the Aboriginal Studies Program have offices in the house. A couple of ASP courses actually are held at the house. Also, the Native Students Association office is adjacent.

The association was host to a New Year's Eve pow wow, among other cultural and social events.

Hamilton-Diabo said First Nations House is active in recruiting Canadian Native students to come to the university, and will go to bat for them on getting admitted, financial matters, grade disputes and coping with stress.

Although many Native students are from Toronto or the province of Ontario, First Nations House will help untangle financial problems for students being assisted through "band grants" from their individual reserves in Canada.

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It oversees two scholarships for Native students, Hamilton-Diabo said, adding typical majors they choose include law, education, social work and medicine.

The elders are Lillian McGregor, Ojibwe, and Grafton Antone, Oneida, who open feasts or ceremonies and talk about traditions like the cleansing ceremony or smudging.

Hamilton-Diabo said he helps Native students choose courses, with the challenge of handling the workload, time management, life skills and organization.

Tutors at the house assist Native students mainly with writing skills or will look for a specialized tutor in other areas, he said.

But he pointed to success stories, noting that some students who lack high school credits for normal admission go through a Transitional Year Program before being admitted. He said he has seen students, a lot of them older than the usual college student, go through the transition program and then earn undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Practical help also is available, such as daycare referral and employment opportunities. It's also a place where Canadian Native students can come just to talk.