Thirty-three aboriginal students graduated from Pen High this year, the highest number ever, and their valedictorians — Emily Okabe and Isaiah Kozak — are crediting the school’s Aboriginal Education program for the growing success.
It was the first time two Aboriginal valedictorians were selected, and the first time the selection came from their peers rather than faculty. During the graduation ceremony at the Shatford Centre on June 4, a large section of the seating was occupied by Kozak’s family. As the youngest of four, they were especially proud of Isaiah for being the only one of his brothers to graduate so far, though his sister also completed high school.
While Isaiah’s mother was ecstatic to watch her son graduate, she was kept in the dark about his role as the valedictorian.
“She didn’t know until I was called up on stage,” he said, adding that she then began to cry.
“It’s cool to be breaking the stereotype.”
Until she was in Grade 8, co-valedictorian Okabe said that because of negative connotations she was ashamed of her Aboriginal heritage. Okabe said the support offered now through Pen High wouldn’t have been available at any school 20 years ago, and that Aboriginal education is the reason why she now embraces First Nations culture.
“The Ab-ed teachers are so supportive – their support majorly adjusted attitudes,” Okabe said. “And the whole administration team goes above and beyond.”
The special programming instilled pride in their customs, and to be proud of their culture was the focus of Okabe’s speech.
“Whatever you do, don’t throw away your culture, it’s a part of you,” she said.
Both valedictorians credited support worker Marlene Cox-Bishop, as well as First Nation teachers Lisa Stevens and Dustin Hyde for increasing the number of Aboriginal graduates, who would often going out of their way to support struggling students.
To add some Aboriginal culture to the traditional gowns, Okabe and Kozak were successful in lobbying for an altercation to the tassel — the string that dangles off the square academic caps worn by grads. Instead of it being a fabric that matches the colour of the cap, the Aboriginal students were encouraged to wear materials such as leather and imitation sinew to link together other relevant symbols.
Looking ahead, Kozak, an avid lacrosse player, will be studying kinesiology and athletics next year at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. As well, he will join the lacrosse team. After university, he hopes to play professional lacrosse and also work as a physio and sports therapist. He has a scholarship pending at the school, and is also saving up by working four different jobs.
Okabe received a major entrance and scholarship of $5,000 at UBC in Vancouver, and will study the arts, First Nations, and french. She hopes to either teach, possibly french immersion, or work in government. Either way, her goal is to make a positive impact in Aboriginal affairs.
While Aboriginal education shined a crucial light on the importance of their heritage, they said as Aboriginal students, there was no special treatment when it came to academic evaluation. But its hard to ignore that disadvantages are inherent since the rate of Aboriginal graduates is significantly below average.
“There’s always going to be racism, you have to keep smiling and doing your own thing,” Kozak said. “Eventually it’ll pay off.”