British Columbia·Pomp and Pressure

Indigenous teens get preview of campus life at university summer camp

Vancouver Island University is hosting summer camps to give Indigenous teenagers a chance to experience post-secondary life. The goal is to ease the transition to university, which can be especially challenging if it means moving away from a tight-knit community.

Free program combining cultural activities and teaching life skills is aimed at boosting Indigenous enrolment

From left, Ella Charlie, Shiloh Louie, Rachelle Peter Thomas and Erin Sylvester all attended one of VIU's Thuy'she'num Tu Smun'eem camps. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

It's a chance for Indigenous teenagers to picture themselves studying at university or college.

That's how Amber Crittenden describes the free summer camps for First Nations youth hosted by Vancouver Island University (VIU).

Crittenden is a graduate of VIU and a camp leader for the annual Thuy'she'num Tu Smun'eem camps, which started in 2017.

The goal of the program, which is hosted by the university's 'su'luqw'a' Community Cousins Aboriginal mentorship program, is to increase the number of Indigenous students attending post-secondary institutions. 

The three camps, which are held in the university's campuses in Nanaimo, Duncan and Powell River, combine activities like beading, drumming and hiking with life skills such as personal budgeting. Elder teachings are also part of the week-long camps.

Crittenden, who is Plains Cree Metis, says the camp is a way to get Indigenous students to start thinking about what they will do after high school. 

Although Crittenden is a university graduate, she actually dropped out of high school in Grade 10. She says there were few role models in her community. 

"I love learning but that classroom wasn't the setting for me," Crittenden said. 

"So, once I found my support systems and I found the way I've learned that worked for me, I just couldn't wait to help others find that," Crittenden said.

Camp leader Amber Crittenden says the 'su'luqw'a' Community Cousins Aboriginal mentorship program is an important support for Indigenous students at VIU. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

Crittenden adds that, at first, it was scary for her that the VIU campus was almost bigger than her hometown. 

"So, going to VIU, we want to make sure they can meet those friendly faces. And just see [university] as an option. Just knowing that they can go there and that they can belong there," Crittenden said.

According to the Ministry of Education, 70 per cent of all Indigenous students in public schools graduate from high school, compared to 85 per cent of all students.

However, the number of Indigenous high-school grads who attended post-secondary within two years of graduation dropped from 47 per cent to 43 per cent between 2012 and 2016. That number compares to around 60 per cent for all students.

The Indigenous program for high school students at VIU is one way of fighting this downward trend.

Lack of mentors in childhood

Philip Brayley, another camp leader, describes the camp as a kind of hybrid because it brings together classes like financial literacy with Indigenous cultural components. 

Brayley also faced challenges when it came to attending post-secondary. 

He grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation in upstate New York and says that although his parents were supportive of university, there was also a lack of mentors.

"I saw the things that people were doing and I felt like that is not really getting them anywhere," he said.  

As a student, Brayley received support from an Indigenous mentorship program at Pitzer College in California. 

He came to Vancouver Island this summer to support students attending the VIU camps.

Students at the VIU summer camp participate in a drumming as part of the cultural component. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

'It's just great'

Aiden Charlie, a Grade 10 student from the Cowichan Valley who attended the camp in Duncan, described the experience as "actually pretty cool." 

"We're just doing a lot of activities and learning about self-discovery and stuff like that," he said. 

Charlie is confident he will attend university. 

"I feel like it just opens up a lot of opportunities and getting jobs and following your dreams ... it's just great," he said. 

Charlyse Brown from the Snuneymuxw First Nation, who is going into Grade 12, said she has already taken some university classes with her mother, who is doing her masters degree. 

Charlyse plans to go to university, even though she admits that moving away from home could be difficult. 

"I would miss my family, I'd miss friends and my cultural stuff because I'm always involved in cultural activities that go on," she says.

At university she plans to study Hul'qumi'num, a Coast Salish language she already speaks fluently. 

"I want to share more of the language with more of the youth," she says.

'A healthier, happier, more fruitful life'

The students at the Duncan camp had a surprise guest when the new president of VIU, Deborah Saucier, dropped by to shake their hands. 

Saucier, a neuroscientist with Metis heritage who grew up in Duncan, B.C., says the students attending the camp are the future. 

"Regardless of who they are, people that age, if they decide that they see themselves in post-secondary, we know they're going to have a better life," she said. 

"Any kind of post-secondary lifts everybody up and gives them a path to a healthier, happier, more fruitful life."

The Peter Cundill Foundation has given VIU a grant to run the summer programs for the past three years, allowing students to attend free of charge. 

This story is part of a series call Pomp and Pressure, which examines the stresses and choices high school students in B.C. are facing when it comes to post-secondary education. It airs Sept. 3-6 on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition and On The Coast, with features on CBC Vancouver News at 6 and


Jean Paetkau

Associate producer, CBC Victoria

Jean Paetkau is an award-winning writer who works as an associate producer for CBC Victoria. Her work includes writing for digital, TV, radio and print.