By SHEILA PRITCHARD
The number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people enrolling in post-secondary education is on the rise, but there are still challenges faced by Aboriginal people pursuing higher education today.
According to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), only two Aboriginal students were enrolled at university or college in all of Canada in 1952. By 1969, the number of Aboriginal students enrolled had risen to 100. In 2011, it was estimated that almost 30,000 students in Canada were Aboriginal, with about half studying in Ontario.
“This year, there are approximately 160 Aboriginal students enrolled at Niagara College,” says Tanja Steinbach, Aboriginal counsellor at the Niagara-on-the-Lake and Welland campuses.
“Although the number of Aboriginal peoples who are attending and completing post-secondary education is increasing, Aboriginal involvement in post-secondary education still lags well behind that of the non-Aboriginal population,” says Jane Preston, author of The Urgency of Postsecondary Education for Aboriginal Peoples.
Data from the 2011 census show that 48.4 per cent of Canada’s adult Aboriginal population has a post-secondary qualification, significantly less than the overall Canadian figure of 64.1 per cent.
Socio-economic issues such as poverty and unemployment put the Aboriginal community at a disadvantage for accessing post-secondary education, OUSA reports, but there are other factors that can hinder a higher education. Aboriginal students tend to be mature students and are much more likely to have a dependent child.
They may have to travel long distances from their home communities and deal with an unfamiliar culture and environment, which can lead to loneliness and frustration. With historical, cultural, and societal obstacles to overcome, discrimination, and a lack of role models and counselling, Aboriginal students face unique challenges.
Arlene Bannister, who worked as office administrator, program liaison, and student adviser for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Student Services at Niagara College, says encouraging and assisting students in a culturally and supported way is her first priority.
“The First Nations, Métis and Inuit Student Services recognizes each First Nations, Métis and Inuit student learner must experience a sense of belonging and a place where their voices are heard and where their cultural traditions, histories and beliefs are respected and understood,” she says. There are many services available to students here, including a computer lab specifically for First Nations students’ use, with Internet access, Native designated bursaries available, a library of Native resource materials (including periodicals, manuals and videos), provision of guidance, and student advocacy that is college structures, policies, procedures, faculty relationships.
“Advice and support is offered to new and existing students and those interested in entering our college community, and a study and lounge area, a ‘home away from home’ atmosphere, is provided,” says Bannister.
Some of these services overlap with general student support services, but First Nations, Métis and Inuit Student Services provide Aboriginal students with the specific resources and sense of community needed to excel in the post-secondary experience.
“We have a good foundation of trust, respect, open communication, and I have an open door policy,” says Bannister. “Students are my number one priority.”