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Access students left in limbo
Future uncertain for five women in social work qualifying program

Kirsten Fenn
Northern News Services
Friday, February 10, 2017

A few years ago, Danielle Judas was working full-time and living on her own when she decided she wanted to do more.

NNSL photo/graphic

Danielle Judas, left, Jacqueline Hunt-Cornock, Percilla Judas and Sonya Almond are four of the five students in the social work access program at Aurora College. They will no longer be able to get a diploma in social work from the college after the school announced it is cutting the program due to funding cuts and low graduation rates. - Kirsten Fenn/NNSL photo

Although the 23-year-old born-and-raised Yellowknifer didn't have a high school diploma, she was keen to enter Aurora College's social work program. So she spent the next year upgrading her high school credits.

Students take a stand for social work

A crowd of more than 50 people cheering "Save the program! Save the program!" marched from Aurora College to the legislative assembly yesterday afternoon to protest the school's decision to cut its social work program.

Passing cars honked in support and others cheered for the marchers as they made their way down Franklin Avenue and by city hall before reaching their destination.

"We're taking away something important not to just our students, but the whole community around the North," said first-year Aurora College social work student Meagan Shuparski.

She said the program cuts not only impact students, but residents across the NWT who need the help of social workers.

"What needs to be taught in the North is culturally sensitive and Northern-based programs," Shuparski said. "The Northerners know what the Northerners need."

Samantha Brissette is in the second year of the social work program and doesn't agree with the cuts. She said the way they were communicated was "unprofessional" and "sudden."

"We just got an e-mail," Brissette said. "It wasn't really sensitive to how drastic of a change it was."

Second-year social work student Sherayah Clark said the pursuit of social justice is in students' code of ethics and that they are protesting because "this is a justice issue."

"We have a right to education and bettering ourselves and our knowledge. And, with our education, we can help in return by bettering our community."

The year after that, she joined the college's one-year access program, where she is now improving her qualifications further to gain admission to the two-year social work diploma program.

Last week, Judas' plans came to a crashing halt when Aurora College announced it is terminating admissions to its social work and education programs.

No new students - including Judas and the four other women in the access program - will be able to start their diploma.

"All of us are questioning what we're supposed to do now," Judas said. "We worked so hard just to get the classes."

Aurora College announced the program cuts last week as a result of a $1.89-million funding reduction to the school that is proposed in the 2017-18 territorial budget.

The school's president, Jane Arychuk, cited low admissions and graduation rates as the reason for the decision, a statement that has been echoed by Education, Culture and Employment Minister Alfred Moses.

Jacqueline Hunt-Cornock, 20, is also in the social work access program. She said she and her five classmates were informed of the cuts during lunch on Feb. 1, after receiving an "unclear" e-mail stating the social work program would be finishing in 2019.

She said the access students figured they would still be able to complete the degree, like anyone else who is currently in the diploma program. That was until her teacher returned from a budget meeting at 1 p.m. that day.

"She was really upset and sat down and started crying because she's the one who had to break the news to us," Hunt-Cornock said. "Most of us were, for one, in shock."

Most of the women spent a year upgrading their high school credits before getting into the access program. Some of them are also mothers and have uprooted their families to Yellowknife in order to enrol.

"We're the ones that are most greatly affected by this budget cut because now everything that we've worked so hard towards and put our funding towards is pretty much for nothing," Hunt-Cornock said, explaining the women received student financial assistance to complete the access program. "We're not even going to be able to start the program."

On Feb. 3, the women sent a letter to MLAs stating they are "heartbroken" by the cut to the social work program.

"We have worked long and hard for our education and now it has been taken from us," the letter states. "Our education was a right that you are supposed to be defending."

Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu shared parts of the letter with members on Tuesday.

He asked the education minister about the possibility of extending the social work program by one year so students in the access program could still get their diploma.

Moses replied that students could look at new career paths or go to an institution down south for a social work degree.

"Aurora College staff have met with them and have come up with other plans, other career paths that they might want to take, and my understanding is that all five students have worked with the college to develop a new career path that they're looking at," Moses said.

Judas said she is thankful counselors at Aurora College have helped the students look at other options, but the only thing she wants to study is social work and going down south is not an option for her.

"I was born and raised here. I would love to stay in the North. I want to be taught in the North," Judas said. "It's just too stressful to leave."

Judas said she would have to take another year of upgrading to qualify for studies at a southern institution, something she doesn't want to do.

Other social work students and teachers are rallying behind the five access students and have written a second letter to get the word out to the public about their situation, according to Hunt-Cornock

"Even if it doesn't change the minds of the people who get to decide if the budget cut goes through or not, at least then the community will be aware of how it's affecting us," she said.

"It's real people in your community that you're affecting."

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