Fostering an environment of belonging: Helping students from Canada’s territories feel at home at uOttawa

Northern Compass
Karen Agulkark
Homesickness and culture shock are well acknowledged parts of starting university. Those experiences can be compounded for Indigenous students coming from Northern Canada, including former uOttawa student Karen Aglukark.

Aglukark is a team leader with Northern Compass, a project that supports students from Canada’s territories in their adjustment to postsecondary education. In February 2020, Northern Compass received the prestigious $1 million Arctic Inspiration Prize.

The Prize itself was co-created by Sima Sharifi, a uOttawa alumna, and her husband Arnold Witzig who donated $60 million to recognize the challenges and opportunities they saw in the Canadian Arctic. That includes the challenge of moving to Southern Canada, an experience with which Aglukark is all too familiar.

She remembers one of her first undergraduate classes in Ottawa. Surrounded by hundreds of new classmates, the professor told everyone to review the syllabus and send an email if they had any questions. “And I was like, ‘I have so many questions, I don’t even know what they are yet!’” laughs Aglukark.

The lecture hall was nearly the same size as Aglukark’s high school in Arviat, Nunavut. Being out on campus offered no solace. “A lot of the advice when you feel overwhelmed in your first year is to get outside and connect with nature,” Aglukark says. “But it was not my nature — it was green, and I was surrounded by buildings.”

A lot has changed for Aglukark since then. She graduated, worked with the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut in Iqaluit and returned south to start a psychology degree at uOttawa.

This time, that move was easier because of the personal coping mechanisms and community Aglukark had developed. Northern Compass helps other youth form similar connections.

Northern Compass, alongside its operational partner Northern Youth Abroad (NYA), launched in 2020 and is offering transition support for 55 Northern and Indigenous students — a continuation of the work NYA has done over the past five years. Despite the pandemic, many Northern students had no choice but to come south because of limited technology access and other barriers to learning in their home communities.

For those students, Northern Compass offered remote orientation and created a virtual support hub. The little introductions are just as important: how to get to the grocery store, buy textbooks, apply for scholarships and bursaries, the list goes on. Longer term, Northern Compass is building a community of role models and mentors so the next generation of high school students can see all the professional pathways available to them.

While similar student services may be offered by postsecondary institutions, the difference with Northern Compass is that it’s designed specifically for Northern youth, grounded in a sense of community and overseen by leaders like Aglukark who understand what it’s like to move south.

Over the years, Aglukark has helped her own younger brother and sister adjust to life in Ottawa. Her sister, Beth, is a student at uOttawa’s Telfer School of Management. With Northern Compass, Aglukark’s impact is reaching further still, with her mind and heart ever-turned to the North.

At uOttawa we are driven by the urge to challenge the status quo, the will to make an impact and the ambition to become a catalyst for change.

Our key priorities include creating a culture of mental health and wellness and an environment of belonging for First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Seeking out funding opportunities like the Arctic Inspiration Prize is one way we’re achieving our goals.

Learn more about what we’re doing to respond with integrity and creativity to the demands of our rapidly changing world and find out how you can be part of this exciting transformation.