'It changed me as a person,' Indigenous kids say of Western's Mini-University program

Mini University is a program offered at Western to encourage Indigenous kids to complete high school and continue their education.

Mini-University helps students learn about possible career paths and about Indigenous culture

Mini-University youth and team leaders. (Maram Hijazi/CBC)

A group Indigenous kids and teens got a taste of university life this month at Mini-University, a program offered by Western University's Indigenous Services. 

The aim is to encourage Indigenous children to complete high school and continue their education. The week-long program is divided into two age groups: Crane, for ages 14-17, and Otter for ages 11-13.

"I think it's an amazing new experience to have," said Kaiya Kamande, who attended the program. "It definitely changed me as a person, because I learned more about my culture, about university and school—and had a lot of fun." 

Team leader Donika Stonefish said she wants the program to empower youth to do "whatever they want to do."

"Whether that be university, whether that be college, trades, apprenticeship, or even learning more about our own culture," she said.

Donika Stonefish, Team Leader at Mini-University. (Maram Hijazi/CBC)

Throughout the program, youth engage in interactive learning on-campus with professors, university students, and community members. They also get a sense of what it's like to be a university student, by spending time in research laboratories, and sleeping over in dorm rooms. 

Apart from learning about the various programs and courses offered at Western, the kids also got to learn about their own culture by speaking with elders.

"We really like to include culture because a lot of times for Indigenous people, education hasn't always been our friend," said Stonefish. 

"When we talk about education and people going away for school, a lot of people think that means giving up your Indigenous identity. But that isn't true, you can come to these places, and still be yourself and still be strongly connected to your community and your roots."

Mini-U also helps kids think about what they want to be when they grow up. They learn about career paths such as medicine, engineering, social sciences and law. 

Banaisekwe Henry, a mini university attendee, said the program greatly influenced her and her family. She encourages other Indigenous youth to take part in the coming years. 

"It's awesome," said Henry. "My brother tried it and it completely changed him. It helped him figure out what he wants to be."