Harvard grad defies one of Yukon’s most disturbing statistics

Raven Smith never dreamt of attending Harvard. It's safe to say few in Carcross do. In fact, 38 per cent of Carcross/Tagish First Nation children are at risk of dropping out of elementary school. But this summer, Smith graduated from the Ivy League university.

Raven Smith never dreamt of attending Harvard.

It’s safe to say few in Carcross do. In fact, 38 per cent of Carcross/Tagish First Nation children are at risk of dropping out of elementary school.

But this summer, Smith graduated from the Ivy League university.

The time spent on the Boston campus was an amazing experience, said the self-professed learning addict.

“Harvard’s a very special place,” she said. “The amount of opportunities and doors that open to you are pretty incredible. They do a good job of what they do. It was challenging, but also a lot of fun. I’m really glad I did it – which is nice, because not everything works out that way.”

Smith has always felt like she has walked through life with her feet in two different worlds, she said.

Spending the summers with her family in Carcross, but going to school in Vancouver, she is only now starting to figure out how to meld her career and community.

“I am very grateful that I was exposed so much to my culture,” she said. “That has sort of played a role in shaping who I am, and I guess, part of my desire to work in community development.”

Smith is leaving the world of academics as one of the newest, leading minds in private-sector social enterprise.

In other words, she works with private companies to help them realize their role and impacts in society.

Some may even say she’s in the industry of making business grow a conscience.

For Smith, it could mean people who have never been eligible for insurance or a bank loan may now have a place to go.

Through her undergraduate degree, her master’s and now her Harvard MBA, Smith has studied, travelled and worked in the United States, India, Japan, Venezuela, Jordan and Indonesia.

Currently, she is working in Boston, but she is finally at a place where she can be more involved in the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, she said.

It is a welcome commitment for the First Nations’ leader, Mark Wedge.

“She’s out in the world and she has a connection to the community,” he said. “We’re trying to get her involved in some of the two trusts we have set up. She has that investment and business background so we’d like her to look at that.”

Upon news of her graduation, the community showed their pride in a traditional way.

“We sent down her father, Frank Smith, and the community sent down with him a button blanket,” said Wedge. “When I was describing it to Frank, it’s like the community is wrapping their arms around her when she puts that robe on. She is representing our nation. We had it down at the office here and community members came by and sewed on two or three buttons. So it was a lot of community effort.

“It’s a big thing. The community is very proud of her.”

And no one could be more proud than her father.

“My father always used to tell me, when she was growing up and when he was around, ‘You’ve got a diamond in the ruff,’” said Frank Smith, Raven’s father. “I didn’t see it at the time, but now I understand what he meant. It’s truly, truly true.

“I’m a very, very proud father. And somewhat bewildered because of the background that she came from.

“She came form a broken family and 90 per cent of the children who come out of broken families don’t do too well. And she did.”

The fact that Smith and Raven’s mother worked hard at keeping a friendship for their daughter’s sake played a big role in it all, he said.

Smith always made the time for Raven, even when he was tired, he said. More parents need to explain things when their children ask and pay attention to them when they want it, instead of just shoving them in front of a television, he added.

It’s a commonsense idea the First Nation is trying to have incorporated into the community’s school curriculum, said Wedge.

“We know we’re not dumb,” he said, listing success stories like Smith’s, which stands in such contrast to the drop-out rate in the community.

It’s a statistic that is actually, physically painful to hear, said Raven.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I know that it’s bad, and I know that more from experience. It’s something that happens to native students across Canada.

“I really believe that good role models and good mentors for children – that could be anyone – are really important. The environment children have is critical for their long-term success and when we talk about poverty … it’s not one thing that you can do, it’s this entire culture that people have that you have to start to change. And some of that starts with kids just getting to hear that it’s possible.

“I know it’s so cliche, but it’s really true, because I’ve sat with kids at Harvard and you really start to notice that it’s not because they’re genetically brilliant that they’re there, but they’ve been taught and brought up to realize that they can do anything they want to do. And they believe that.”

Often it only takes one teacher or one mentor to turn kids in another direction, she said. And Smith is going to try to be that for children in Carcross, she said – whether it’s during her visits to the community a few times a year, helping students with applications, or even just providing support from afar.

“The biggest barrier to success is often yourself,” she said. “We count ourselves out before we even try and kids need to be able to hear that no matter how difficult it is, it honestly is possible if you work hard.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at