AFS program transformative experience for students
It's a warm, quiet spring day. The birds are singing softly, the grass is moving gently in the breeze and the clouds float aimlessly in the sky. In a typical day we're too busy to notice what's happening around us, but for students in the Faculty of Social Work's Aboriginal Field of Study, the week-long Elders teachings and self-reflection camp is a time to reflect, to think and to observe. The land-based camp, held each year in June, is just one of the unique aspects of this culturally-infused Master of Social Work (MSW) program.
Launched in 2006, the Aboriginal Field of Study (AFS) is based on indigenous, wholistic teachings of First Nations peoples. In addition to the one-year full-time Master of Social Work program at Laurier's Kitchener campus, the program has expanded to include part-time programs that are held in partnership with First Nations Technical Institute (Tyendinaga First Nation, Ontario) and Seven Generations Education Institute (Fort Frances, Ontario). A third part time cohort is also underway with the Mi'kmaq/Maliseet Association of Social Service Professionals (Fredericton, New Brunswick).
The AFS program is designed to reflect the indigenous world view and contexts of Aboriginal social work practice. Classes are conducted in a circle, which is an indigenous method of teaching, learning, healing and practicing. "The circle helps people have equality in terms of voice," said Kathy Absolon-King, Interim AFS Program Coordinator. "The circle is a space that is safe."
In September, AFS students begin the MSW program with a week-long culture camp that prepares them for the year ahead by introducing them to the tools, medicines, philosophies and ceremonies used in wholistic healing practices. Students construct their own hand drums, called Grandmother drums. "Students are taught to care for the drums as if they are caring for their grandmothers", said Kathy. "The drums have spirits and each person builds a relationship with their drum. We also teach students to sing traditional songs, which help them learn to use their voices in a positive way that nurtures healing and wellness."
All AFS classes and meetings open with a song and a smudging ceremony. In the smudging ceremony, smoke from a sacred medicine, such as sage or sweetgrass, washes over each person to cleanse away negativity in the mind and body, opening each person's eyes and ears and minds to the discussions to come.
AFS classes are also academically rigorous. Students are exposed to indigenous scholarship and literature, write papers and do presentations. Their courses highlight indigenous history, cultures and worldviews, but also the marginalization and oppression of other cultures.
The final course of the program is Elders Teaching and Self-Reflection, which ends with a four-day self-reflective camp in which students are isolated out on the land. Students are encouraged to keep journals during the this time. They are isolated to self reflect and continue to share with Program Elders and they leave behind the fast-paced life of work, family and friends. There are no books, no electronics, no interactions with other people. But the students aren't alone, said Kathy. "They are there with their Grandmothers and Grandfathers in Creation and with their Mother the Earth. They are nurturing their relationship to their own wholistic self. Knowing yourself is one of many knowledges they foster and this time fosters this relationship to your whole self. We ask them to reflect on their roles as wholistic practitioners and what the past year has meant to their practice and how they are going to make meaning out of their social work learning experience."
"It's meant to be a time of serious reflection", said Kathy. "You can look at your relationship to creation when you're sitting there with the earth. We encourage students to tell their stories to creation. Creation wants to know who you are. And, in telling your story, you may begin to understand who you are. When you understand your place in creation, you can help others understand their place in creation. As a helper, you need to know yourself. Understanding and knowing yourself are the biggest tools in being a practitioner."
Kathy admits that the experience of Elders teachings and self-reflection camp is often difficult. "It's not meant to be easy," she said. "But students come out of it transformed. Something changes inside them and they are better human beings. They come away with a sense of pride, a sense of 'I did it'".
From the culmination of Indigenous knowledge, ceremony, scholarship, literature, activities, learning circles, critical self-reflection and wholistic feedback, the students undertake a transformative learning journey. The Aboriginal Field of Study is a unique program offering graduate education from an Indigenous worldview. It is a program that Laurier is proud to support and offer.