McMaster's indigenous students have eyes on success

The university's Indigenous Studies program is trying to ensure more aboriginal students finish their degrees
Recruitment and retention officer Jennie Anderson helps an incoming student select courses.

Kaylin Parker is sprawling on a sofa in the sun-drenched student lounge of McMaster University's Indigenous Studies program. 

The 20-year-old Six Nations Polytechnic graduate begins her studies at McMaster in a few weeks, and she's on campus Wednesday to take part in an orientation tour hosted by Mac's Indigenous Studies program.

Parker, who grew up on the Six Nations reserve, is keenly aware of the ambivalence many students feel when forced to leave small, tight-knit communities.

"I think people feel trapped on the reserve. They want to leave, but the idea of leaving is scary. On the reserve it's like a big family; you know everyone and you're comfortable with everyone, so going away to school is a big change."

For many Indigenous students, that 'big change' is too large a barrier to overcome.

McMaster's Indigenous Studies program — which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year— has significantly increased the number of indigenous students that enroll at the university. But it struggles to ensure that each of those students graduate.

Nationwide, Indigenous graduation rates are well below graduation rates of mainstream students.Mac students, as a whole, have a graduation rate that hovers over 80 per cent.

Although the Indigenous Studies program cautions that it is difficult to produce precise figures in terms of student retention — some students do not identify as Indigenous until after they enroll, while others identify when they apply but not after they enroll — it does acknowledge that graduating Indigenous students is an ongoing struggle.

Searching for success

The centre provides academic, cultural and peer support, but is still searching for the formula to more successfully combat the complex and varied reasons — cultural,  historic, educational and practical — that make graduating more of a struggle for indigineous students.

"It's a complex issue," said Tara Campbell, manager of indigenous student services.

"Our students face a variety of barriers...and we're doing everything we can to help our students get their diplomas."

Challenges in indigenous education

There are many reasons why the gap between indigenous and mainstream student graduation exists: 

Rick Monture, the director of the Indigenous Studies program, said that some of the barriers that First Nations students face are the result of "a lingering attitude toward post-secondary education within the communities that have suffered abuses at residential schools."

Monture, who is from Six Nations, also explains that students who grew up on reserves "have not always received the best education."

"There's a lot of shortfalls in the resources available for our students. That's not any knock against the teachers that are doing their very best in those communities, but they're under-resourced."

Vanessa Watts, an associate professor in Indigenous Studies, said that indigenous students are confronted with situations that mainstream students do not have to deal with.

"The history that's being told in many institutions is not always accurate. And when you're being talked about by a non-Indigenous professor surrounded by non-Indigenous students about yourself or your history or where you come from it's quite awkward. It feels extremely odd and disconnected, especially if that information is not correct, or certain events are being talked about out of context," said Watts, who is also from Six Nations.

Mac's First Nations Student Association president Carrie McMullin, a fourth year history and Indigenous Studies major, said that there are other challenges she sees for native students.

"A lot of times, our student body is at different times in their lives. A lot of our students are mature students, and have families and other responsibilities that rightfully should come first that often crop up and interrupt that linear path from year one to year four.  From talking to people, that seems to be the biggest barrier to completion."

Kaylin Parker and George Doxdater begin their studies at McMaster University in September. (Matt Moir, )

Peer and elder supporrt

The Indigenous Studies program has gone to great lengths to develop a support network for native students.

Staff members are enthusiastic and hardworking, and they take pride in their collaborative approach to offer students a host of services, including academic support, guidance for employment opportunities and assistance in navigating complex scholarship and bursary application processes and employment support.

Tribal elders are often available to meet with students on campus, giving students the opportunity to connect with their culture; something that, according to Campbell, is popular with most indigenous students.

"Our students are hungry for cultural awareness, and it's enlightening for them to speak with the elders."

Asked if she will access the services provided by Indigenous Studies, Kaylin Parker, the incoming student, is emphatic that she will; she is proud of her indigenous roots and is planning on becoming involved in Mac's aboriginal community.

Parker isn't worried, though, about the sobering retention rates for indigenous students; she's confident that she will graduate in four years, and then complete a master's degree.

"When I was in high school I messed up a little bit, so I know I want to finish my degrees as quickly as possible. The longer you take to graduate, the longer you have to wait to start your life."

Corrections

  • This story was modified to reflect that an accurate graduation rate for Indigenous students at McMaster can't be determined because of the limitations of existing statistics.
    Sep 13, 2013 4:17 PM ET