Back in September, students at indigenous schools were already asking Amanda Myers about Western's winter track and field day.
Myers is the youth outreach coordinator at Western's Indigenous Services, who host an annual track and field day for indigenous youth. She explained why the youth look forward to this day so much.
"It’s something different, it's something where they can run around, be crazy, be wild and the [Western varsity] athletes that are involved do a phenomenal job of facilitating that," she said. "Some kids from out of town, they don’t come into London that often so that’s exciting too."
The event was held on the Wednesday over the Reading Week at the Thompson Arena track. All day, you could see the excitement from the 165 First Nation, Métis and Inuit students that were there. The students were all in grade seven and eight, and came from 12 different schools across southwestern Ontario. All morning and afternoon they rotated around to different stations run by the varsity track and field team.
Erik Mandawe, the indigenous liaison admissions coordinator with Indigenous Services, said the purpose of this event is to introduce these students to the University.
"We put on this event as part of our outreach strategy to attract more indigenous youth to consider Western University when it comes time for them to look at post-secondary," said Mandawe. "And we can say that we have a number of current [Western] students that did take part in this event five, six or seven years ago."
Mandawe added he believes Western is a good fit for indigenous students that live on reserves close to London.
"We do have a very good relationship at Western with our local indigenous communities," he said. "A number of the schools today are coming from Chippewas of the Thames, Munsee-Delaware and Oneida Nation of the Thames, which are the three closest local reserves."
Mandawe also explained indigenous students from reserves closest to London are more likely to attend Western compared to other indigenous youth at track and field day.
"One of the biggest problems our students face is home sickness when they are pursuing post-secondary, so because we are pretty close to the reserves where their families are from, the likelihood of them coming to Western is more because they have more familial support and that sense of community and belonging here," Mandawe explained.
Some schools drove as far as two hours to come to the event. The furthest of these groups came from the Walpole Island First Nation reserve on the border between Ontario and Michigan.
Another school came to the event that does their curriculum in their own Oneida language. This school is known as the Log School and is based out of the Oneida Nation of the Thames. This school has been coming to track and field day since it first started 11 years ago, and Mandawe emphasized the importance of maintaining a close relationship with them.
"It's really important for us to engage with the young people that are coming from that community as well because they're not a mainstream school, they're taught in a different language completely," he said. "It's really empowering to see that days like these have made a difference in their selection for post-secondary in general."
Moving forward, Mandawe wants to see more indigenous students come to Western. As an advocate for indigenous applicants, he helps ensure Western is complying with the Aboriginal admittance policy to help increase access and retention for indigenous learners. This policy is important because it has helped Western increase the number of indigenous students enrolled over the past few years.
Myers also noted that with increasing numbers of indigenous students it is important that these indigenous youth are exposed to the university atmosphere before applying to university.
“It’s an opportunity for them to meet students their age from across southern Ontario because that’s the same kind of experience they would have coming to university as a first-year student," said Myers. "When we have orientation in the fall, we have our own Indigenous Services orientation because culturally a lot of our students are not comfortable attending the mainstream orientations so they’ll come to Indigenous Services."