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February 27, 2017
Jana Reaches Out to Create Opportunities
Two years ago, Grade 12 Branksome student Jana Kurrek began volunteering with the Leacock Foundation's Trails program. "We would run outdoor activities in Northern Ontario for Indigenous students in Grades 5 and 6." During one outing, a young girl expressed shock that Jana had participated in rowing.

"It soon became apparent that these students lack access to the co-curricular and athletic activities which have been normalized at Branksome," Jana says. "This was an upsetting realization for me because it revealed how sheltered we are to the opportunity gap faced by indigenous youth."

Chatting further, Jana discovered the girl was uninterested in the topic of university. "Again, this was something which struck me. Girls at Branksome have begun crafting their career aspirations from an early age. They strive to become doctors, lawyers, artists —but for this student, post-secondary education was not even on the radar."

This encounter set Jana's wheels spinning. She conducted online research and discovered one potential source of the problem: lack of early life exposure to post-secondary opportunities. But when she contacted the University of Toronto to inquire about developing an introductory program, she never dreamed she'd have two years of organizing ahead of her.

Her persistence paid off this year. On January 30, more than 40 students from the Toronto First Nations P.S. attended the full-day introductory program at U of T's Faculty of Medicine called Yeyénthos (Ojibwe for "planting seeds"). The goal of this program is to enable the university to connect, at an earlier age, with students who are underrepresented in the Health Sciences.

Students spent the first half of the day at First Nations House where Elders and university affiliates shared information about opportunities for academic success, financial support and pre-admission tutoring. The second half of the day was spent in hands-on activities, which included modelling software and pancreatic tissue engineering, led by Dr. Penney Gilbert, Canadian Research Chair.

"Honestly? It was amazing," says Jana of watching the students partake in her long-held vision—achieved with the help of Dawn Maracle, U of T's Undergraduate Medical Education Indigenous People's Program Coordinator and La Toya Dennie, U of T's Outreach Coordinator.

"I was given a drawing by one student, who said that I was her life-long best friend. She told me that she had never had anyone care about her interests in this way before. Another young boy told me that he wished he could remain in the fifth grade forever so that he could re-attend my activity every year. Many students expressed their newfound interests in pursuing fields in Science. This made me realize the extent to which I could impact the lives of others through my volunteer work."

Jana is thrilled that Yeyénthos has been confirmed to run annually at U of T. "I am really grateful to the university's Outreach Department. While we certainly faced a myriad of issues throughout the planning stages, in hindsight it seems that there is nothing I would do differently."

What's next for Jana? "I am not sure. Potentially something legally oriented that will directly address discriminatory policies affecting Indigenous populations living on reserves. I hope to have a larger-scale impact in the future."

Watch out world.

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