Manitoba

Winnipeg professor recognized for work with refugee students

When Jan Stewart is recognized with the prestigious RJ Cochrane Award from the Manitoba School Counsellor’s Association on Monday evening it will hold a special meaning.

Jan Stewart is receiving the prestigious RJ Cochrane Award on Monday

Jan Stewart, a University of Winnipeg education professor, will be honoured with the RJ Cochrane Award from the Manitoba School Counsellor’s Association on Monday evening for her work with refugee students. (Dan Bailey / University of Winnipeg)

When Jan Stewart is recognized with the prestigious RJ Cochrane Award from the Manitoba School Counsellors' Association on Monday evening it will hold a special meaning.

Three decades prior, her father John G. Stewart, received the same award, which recognizes outstanding dedication to helping troubled kids in schools.

"It's a really good feeling to be recognized and also to see your father's name on there," Stewart said.

Her father passed away when she was young and Stewart said, at the time, she didn't know that she would be a school counsellor. But she remembered coming down for breakfast and her dad sitting with a child she didn't know at the table or phone calls in the middle of the night and her dad heading out the door to help.

"You never really know the effect you will have on certain children or students or youth but it really only takes one to make it meaningful," she said. 

Stewart did end up following her father's footsteps. Her experience as a school counsellor led her to becoming a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Winnipeg, specializing in refugee counselling and education.

Stewart recalled working in a Winnipeg high school and helping a student who was a recent refugee from Sudan, a country in northern Africa which experienced a 22-year civil war starting in 1983 leading to about two million deaths and even more people being displaced.

Stewart said she didn't have the skill set at the time to really help the student. Since he wasn't succeeding in classes, Stewart said he spent a lot of time with her and she learned about the trauma the student had experienced. The student witnessed his father's execution and later his mother's sexual assault in a refugee camp, Stewart says.

"I remember sitting in my office thinking I had training in abuse and all of these awful things that can happen in children's lives," he said.

"But I remember sitting back and thinking, you know, nothing has really prepared me to deal with properly this level of violence that some of these kids are coming to my office to talk about."

Soon after she embarked on her doctoral studies looking at how schools and the community can come together to help refugee children succeed.

"If you have a student feeling threatened or frightened in your classroom, very little teaching is going to happen," she said.

"So we need to find ways to make them feel safe, to make them feel like they belong in the school they are going to."

That work is being recognized by her peers and colleagues with an award that hasn't been handed out since 2011.

"It means a lot … being recognized by the field, my peers, my colleagues is certainly a good feeling," she said.

"You never expect something in your career like this, but it's nice when it does come around and you are reminded that people do value the work that you do. It's meaningful."

With files from CBC Radio's Weekend Morning Show

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