Increased recruitment and a healthy dose of encouragement are helping to increase the numbers of aboriginal students attending university and other post-secondary schools in Saskatchewan.
"I think there's more opportunities available now," Anna Denes, a student at the Prince Albert campus of the First Nations University of Canada, told CBC News. "There's more universities, more support systems, more groups for people to go for it."
According to figures provided to CBC News from the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, and FNUC (which has its main campus in Regina) and SIAST, the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (which offers programs at sites across the province), enrolment of aboriginal students has increased 10 to 25 per cent this year compared to two years ago.
According to officials from SIAST, with more than 3,000 students having declared themselves as having aboriginal ancestry, the technical college has the most of any other post-secondary institution in the province. As well, overall, 18 per cent of SIAST students are of aboriginal ancestry.
The increases are notable considering some of the barriers potential students face, especially those from remote parts of Saskatchewan's north.
"If you're coming from somewhere like Fond-du-Lac or Stanley Mission - where your first language is different than where you're coming to get an education - that's a huge thing," Trina Joseph-Bear, an academic advisor for FNUC in Prince Albert, said.
"It's a different atmosphere for a lot of them because most communities up north are isolated," added Ambie Eyahpaise, a student ambassador on the Prince Albert campus.
In addition to that, there are the basic costs students face at post-secondary school, including living expenses, tuition and school supplies. For many First Nations, funding for post-secondary studies is limited.
Challenges still formidable
"You have to be approved, you have to qualify," explained FNUC's Joseph-Bear. "You're not guaranteed funding. We have a lot of students this year, and every year, come in who qualify for university, they've been admitted, they're coming to register and they do register then find out they have no funding, we lose a lot of those students."
One concern continues to be attrition especially for people returning to learning from an absence.
"Especially first years, there's a high amount of drop outs because there's so much they have to learn," Denes noted. "[They have to] re-learn how to go to school, how to be a single parent or be a single-income family, because a lot of times when you go back to school, you quit working."
Joseph-Bear credits a strong recruitment effort for increasing enrolment numbers.
"He [the recruiter] was gone all year," she said. "You know, recruiting to different schools, PA and north, and he'd travel the whole week."
The improved numbers are also generating enthusiasm for the future.
"The youth are realizing that we are the future of our culture and that we have lots of possibilities in our future," Eyahpaise said. "There'll be more mayors of Aboriginal descent, there'll be more politicians, there'll be more teachers, more social workers out in society to help the future."
In Regina, officials at FNUC are also excited to be able to offer educational opportunities.
"People of course want secure, happy futures for their communities and their families," Dr. Lyn Wells, vice-president at FNUC, told CBC News. "They are looking more and more to post-secondary education as the road to that kind of prosperity."
Wells noted that FNUC has more than 700 full-time students attending courses on three campuses and in community-based learning opportunities.