The loneliness of the long-distance student
Nunavik transplants learn to thrive at college far from home
MONTREAL — The Friday lunch hour always begins the same way for a group of a dozen Nunavimmiut students at the French language CÉGEP Marie-Victorin in Montreal North.
They gather to meet with one of their counsellors, Jacques Laplante, to talk about college life — outside the classroom.
Laplante hands out pay stubs to the students, paper reminders of the financial support they receive from the Kativik School Board, which pays for their room, board, tuition and some extra-curricular activities throughout their post-secondary studies.
“Who’s going to the hockey game on the 30th?” Laplante asks the group, who respond with a few raised hands.
He offers cash to another student to purchase tickets for her classmates for a movie at the nearby theatre.
It might sound like a dream come true for a small-town student transplant in the big city, all expenses paid.
But these students are the tiny minority who have succeeded, so far, in adapting to a life 2,000 kilometres away from home in order to pursue their education.
“It’s so far from my family,” said student Sarah Novalinga, from Puvirnituq, whose infant son is staying with her mother while she studies in Montreal.
The city hasn’t been as welcoming as she hoped and people talk too fast, Novalinga says. But, she adds, she knew she needed to be here to improve her French.
Her classmate, Adamie Philie, a first-year student from Kangiqsujuaq, shares some of her thoughts.
“I feel really far from home, but less independent,” he said, gesturing to the daunting industrial neighbourhood that surrounds the north-end college.
Despite the entertainment and diversity a city the size of Montreal can offer, Philie says his life revolves around the campus, where he eats, sleeps (in an adjacent residence) and studies.
Philie is still unsure what he plans to get out of this program, instead focusing first on finding his niche here.
“I think we all support each other together,” remarks student Mae Ningiuruvik of Kuujjuaq, as her classmates nod in agreement.
Already this year, about six students have left the program to return north.
With a show of hands, almost all the students still enrolled say they plan to return to Nunavik once they’ve completed their studies, with a clearer picture than others of what they’ll do professionally.
Students at CEGEP Marie-Victorin begin their studies as part of an integration program designed for Nunavimmiut— in French, the programme d’exploration et intégration Inuit.
The program includes Inuit culture and Inuttitut courses in place of philosophy and English classes (although it’s been four years since the college has been able to find a qualified Inuttitut instructor.)
After their second semester, they are slowly integrated into college’s normal stream.
Of the 18 Inuit students that were enrolled at Marie-Victorin in August, about 12 remain.
But students who return north before graduating can still benefit from their experience, says student counselor Jacques Laplante.
“Often, they don’t know what they want to study,” he said. “But we don’t refuse anyone. If they decide to leave (part-way through their studies) we tell them to take some time, reflect and then come back.”
Part of Laplante’s job is helping to accommodate students in their personal lives, helping find an apartment or transition into urban life.
But even once they’re enrolled, the toughest job for educators is keeping students coming to class regularly.
“When they’re not there, they can’t move forward,” Laplante said.
Despite those challenges, some Marie-Victorin students already have plans to continue their studies post-Marie-Victorin and if successful, be among the first Inuit to practice their professions in Nunavik.
Emaly Jonas has wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a young girl, and plans to study at the Université de Montreal’s faculty of veterinary medicine in St. Hyacinthe.
Minne Annahatak wants to study administration and also adventure tourism so she can help being more visitors to her home community of Kangirsuk.
And Susan Nulukie of Kuujjuaq wants to be an archeologist. She’s also one of the few students who would consider living in Montreal beyond her studies.
“I love Montreal,” Nulukie said. “I like it better here for some reason, it’s different.”