UVic shows there’s a better aboriginal way

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions
Published Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010.   Gary Mason, Columnist

The key to aboriginal independence in Canada is education. Few disagree.

While attainment levels among our aboriginal population are not quite as dismal as they once were, they are still sadly lacking. Although more first nations students are finishing high school these days, the number choosing to go on to university is unacceptably low. In 2006, only 8 per cent of Canada’s indigenous peoples between 25 and 64 had obtained a university degree, compared with 23 per cent in the rest of the country.

Universities have often been able to entice first nations students to their campuses only to lose them before they complete a degree. Many leave because they feel they don’t fit in. Schools don’t have support systems in place that address the concerns and needs specific to aboriginal students.

The University of Victoria is one institution trying to do something about this. The school’s president, Dave Turpin, recognized a decade ago that this would be an emerging national issue. The school decided to focus significant resources on trying to create a culture on campus in which aboriginal students felt more comfortable. At the time, it had fewer than 100 first nations students on campus; today, there are more than 700.

In 2005, the school began a four-year pilot project aimed at improving aboriginal outcomes. It was hoped the program would entice more to finish their degrees and even go on to graduate school. The endeavour was dubbed Le,Nonet, a Coast Salish term for “success after many hardships.”

Program participants were offered a range of support measures: bursaries from $1,000 to $5,000 a year; emergency funding of up to $750 a year; peer mentorship that provided new students with one-on-one tutoring by senior aboriginal students; a community internship program in which students completed 200 hours of work with an aboriginal community in exchange for a $3,500 stipend and 1.5 units of course credit; and a research apprenticeship program in which students completed 200 hours of research work with a professor at the school for a $3,500 stipend and 1.5 units of course credit.

The 200 students who participated in the project could take advantage of any (or all) of the various incentives and forms of assistance being offered. Their progress and results were compared with both aboriginal students who had attended the university in the previous five years before the project began and those aboriginal students attending the school but not participating in the study.

(The project administrators compared program participants with aboriginal non-participants on a number of levels, including grade point averages and grades coming into university, and found that, on average, the two groups were indistinguishable. This eliminated the possibility that program participants were destined to have better outcomes because they were smarter to begin with.)

On Wednesday, the university released the study’s findings: Graduation rates among those in the program improved by 20 per cent; the withdrawal rate was two-thirds less than among those not in the program; and degree GPAs were higher among students taking part in the study than those who weren’t. In interviews and surveys, 73 per cent of the participants said the program helped them become a more integral part of the campus and gave them a better chance of succeeding.

In 2001, the university granted undergraduate degrees to 22 indigenous students; last year, the figure was more than 100. The school didn’t grant a single graduate degree to an aboriginal student nine years ago; there were 11 last year.

Is Le,Nonet the answer to the aboriginal postsecondary dilemma in Canada? Not completely. But for the annual $400,000 it will cost to continue it, it seems money well spent. Certainly better value than the hundreds of millions being dispersed to first nations communities by the federal government under the aegis of the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, a plan with seemingly zero oversight and little effectiveness.

The University of Victoria is showing there’s a better way. Other universities should follow its lead.

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