When they walk across the stage to accept their diplomas, Darius Shagok and Cheyenne Allick will be among the first in their respective families to graduate from high school.
As a bonus, they’ll act as valedictorians for Royal Bay secondary and Belmont secondary, respectively, at a ceremony for aboriginal grads on Saturday, an honour that was offered to them by their teachers.
It’s an accompishment that’s not lost on either of them as they discuss the work they’ve put in to get to where they are today.
“I’m still not used to this feeling. I actully made it…I’ve messed up a lot in my life and just realizing that I actually did something good here, it’s just mind-blowing to me,” Allick says, smiling.
“From an (aboriginal) standpoint it’s huge…for my siblings too, I like to show them. You’re going to get that stereotype that you’re not going to graduate…but I did it,” Shagok adds.
Between Royal Bay, Belmont, Edward Milne and the Westshore Centre for Learning, 91 aboriginal students will graduate from high school this year. While graduation rates appear to be on the rise in the Sooke School District – as recently as 10 years ago under 40 per cent of aboriginal students in SD62 graduated from high school – it’s clear that challenges remain.
Allick recalls battling alcohol problems in Grade 10 and credits the support she received at Belmont with pulling her out of it.
“The support at Belmont…it got me on the right path,” she says. “Everyone there just helped me make it.”
Another factor in her maturation was the addition of some new family members after her parents adopted four children from a mother who struggled with substance abuse.
“I realized (that) I have people looking up to me now. I have to smarten up.”
Shagok recalls the stereotypes that some aboriginal students have to face from others.
“If a native kid misses a couple of days he gets people jumping to assumptions that he’s probably doing bad things or being a ‘dirty Indian’ and doing his own thing,” he says.
Shagok says he didn’t have to personally deal with a lot of prejudice and is thankful for the positive environment at Royal Bay.
“They actually promote a lot of the aboriginal culture. We have our own theatre that has its own (aboriginal) name,” he says, referring to the school’s Teechamitsa Theatre.
“Before every show we like to honour the First Nations on the Island.”
Megan Wood, an aboriginal education teacher at Royal Bay, believes that poverty and even physical barriers continue to hurt students on the path to graduation.
“Say at Scia’new there’s one bus and if they miss that bus that might be their only chance to get in,” she says.
And sometimes school simply can’t be a top priority due to family struggles, Wood continues.
“Sometimes family needs to come first if something’s going on…so we try to adapt around them and try to provide the support,” she says.
Many students, including Shagok for a time, are forced to quit school in order to get a job and help support their families.
Faced with some important decisions in the coming months, Allick and Shagok have a pretty clear picture of where their ambitions lie.
Allick spent a lot of her teenage years fixing cars with her dad, who “bought a lot of cars and ended up breaking some of them,” she jokes. Because of that experience she’s planning to go to Camosun College for a welding course this winter and hopes to enter a heavy duty mechanics course.
Shagok, on the hand, prefers to spend his time in the kitchen. His specialty is lasagna, or “spaghetti cake” as he likes to call it, and one day he’d like to open his own restaurant.
But first, they’ll simply enjoy the moment.
“To experience (graduation) and to do a speech, it’s amazing,” Shagok says.
“I’m excited but really nervous,” Allick says.