Educational initiatives open new doors for First Nations students

Illustration by Afshin Sabouki

Illustration by Afshin Sabouki

Allan Bloom said “Education is the movement from darkness to light,” and this quotation cannot be truer than for Aboriginal students in Canada. The Aboriginal community struggles with lower university enrollment rates, higher dropout rates and fewer programs that directly incorporate Aboriginal culture and teaching mechanisms. However, Simon Fraser University (SFU) has created a pair of Aboriginal bridging programs to give Aboriginal students, both young and mature, the opportunity to get a university degree.

SFU’s Aboriginal Bridge Programs, established in 2007, has two arms – the Aboriginal University Prep Program and the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program –
which are designed for people wanting to upgrade their life and study skills, and to get acclimatized to the university setting.

“The programs are meant to be a bridge into post-secondary [education] and not create any more barriers for the student,” says Natalie Wood-Wiens, coordinator for Indigenous programs at SFU.

Spanning the course of two semesters, the University Prep Program helps students get a well-balanced outlook on academic life, with courses like Foundations of Academic Literacy, which develops students’ reading, writing and oral communication skills, Foundations of Analytical and Quantitative Reasoning, and Introduction to Humanities, among others. According to Wiens, students who stay connected to their culture have a higher success rate, and what makes SFU’s bridging program unique is its close ties with Aboriginal communities. In addition to a course on the Culture, Languages and Origins of Canada’s First Peoples, the program also works closely with Aboriginal elders, who participate in lectures and give students unique cultural insights.

The experience of residential schools

William Lindsay, Director of the Office for Aboriginal Peoples at SFU. | Photo Riyah Lakhani.

William Lindsay, Director of the Office for Aboriginal Peoples at SFU. | Photo Riyah Lakhani.

William Lindsay, the director of SFU’s Office for Aboriginal Peoples, knows a lot about the opportunities that education can provide:

“Going to university for my generation was very distant – it was like going to the moon,” he says.

The experiences of residential schools have left a negative impact on First Nations communities, and the inequality of enrollment rates between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal student populations is a reflection of this. According to the Students Transitions Project, roughly 89 per cent of B.C.’s Aboriginal students graduated high school in 2005/06, compared to 95 per cent of their non-Aboriginal counterparts. However, Lindsay chooses to look at this as a glass half-full situation:

“Many people would look at this as a lack or a gap between Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal students, but I’ve seen so much improvement throughout the years. There is a bit of catching up to do, but we’ve come so far in such a short period of time. I have confidence we will catch up.”

Growing up on a reserve, Lindsay remembers his experience of taking the bus to school: “We were all kids from the reserve on this bus, and it became known as the ‘Indian bus. ’”

Segregation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students was apparent, and the thought of progressing to a post-secondary institution was a foreign concept for Lindsay. However, at the age of 28, Lindsay got accepted at UBC as a mature student.

“The bridging program was what I would have been looking for 25 years ago when I was applying to go back to university. I was looking around the community and there weren’t any at that time that were Aboriginal-focused.”

A recent mature graduate of the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program, Sheryl Thompson decided to sign up after her 19-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son began applying for university, so she could preach to her children about education and know what she was talking about. The opportunities weren’t always available to the stay-at-home mum.

“I didn’t feel like there was a place for an Aboriginal woman in university when I graduated high school,” she says. “The fact that I graduated from high school was seen as a miracle in itself.”

Now in the process of getting a degree in Health Sciences with an ambition to work in the field of health policy, especially in how it relates to family and children, she believes that she wouldn’t have done it without the bridging program.

“Getting through the door was barrier enough because of how I grew up. The program showed me that in fact there was a place for me there.”

Lindsay believes that there are more opportunities now than there has ever been. There are more role models for Aboriginal students in their own communities, more educational institutions are focusing on creating programs that meet Aboriginal student needs, and there is more parent involvement in the education of their children.

Pre-school education opportunities

The Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY Canada) is an example of an organization that focuses on building the relationship between parent and child, and developing the traditional role of the parent as a teacher figure. Established in 2002, Aboriginal HIPPY Canada aims to prepare children between the ages of three-to-five years for school by creating weekly packages of activities and books for parents to use with their children, which are delivered and explained by home visitors of the program. These activities and reading to the children take approximately 15 minutes a day, five days a week for 30 weeks; according to Hippy Canada, these activities have improved parent-child relationships as well as the child’s performance during preschool. Modules include content that is heavily influenced by Aboriginal culture.

“It provides Aboriginal communities the opportunity to embrace the program and view it as their own, and own it,” says Wazi Dlamini-Kapenda, one of HIPPY Canada’s program managers.

HIPPY Canada has worked with over 7,000 families since its initiation in 1999, and continues to serve over 1,000 families a year. With programs like Aboriginal HIPPY Canada and bridging programs like those at SFU, young and mature Aboriginal students have the opportunity to take control of their lives.