Memorial University working to attract Indigenous medical students

The university says the initiatives seem to be working, since there are more Indigenous students enrolled today than ever before.

Nearly 4.9% of the Canadian population identifies as being Indigenous; under 1% are medical professionals

Memorial University has 13 Indigenous students enrolled in its School of Medicine, but wants to increase that number. (CBC)

Memorial University of Newfoundland says there has been a growth spurt in the number of Indigenous students enrolled in its medical school.

There are 13 Indigenous students enrolled in the faculty — as many as the total number of previous graduates who identified as being Indigenous.

That increase can be attributed to Memorial's Aboriginal Health Initiative, according to Dr. Carolyn Sturge-Sparkes, who works with the program.

"Nationally, Indigenous youth are under-represented in the medical profession," she said.

"I think close to 4.9 per cent of the Canadian population is now identified as being Indigenous, and under one per cent are represented in the medical profession." 

High school students at Sheshatshiu Innu School take turns examining each other's eyes and ears during recruitment there in 2016. (Bailey White/CBC)

"I became more and more cognizant as time went on that we need to reach into the communities and reach students while they are still in high school to sow the seeds of their interests in any of the health care professions," said Sturge-Sparkes.

Learning about the options

In 2015, Memorial started offering a week-long summer camp at the Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. The Healers of Tomorrow Gathering is aimed at teaching Indigenous high school students about the different jobs in health care.

The camp is offered every two years. It's inaugural session hosted 11 students, four of whom are now enrolled in Memorial's School of Nursing. 

"This past camp we had in the summer of 2017, there were 17 facilitators presenting all the different health care professions," said Sturge-Sparkes.

"In addition to that, we also have elders and healers attending the camp. They run concurrent sessions about the Indigenous world view of healing and healing practices."

Career fairs for high school students, like this one in Corner Brook, recruit students into various health care professions. (Gary Moore/CBC)

According to Sturge-Sparkes, it's also important to work with Indigenous students to build their confidence.

"Because of the history of colonialism within these communities and the reverberations of residential schools have had great bearing on students' view on their ability to be able to take on these academic challenges," she said.

Once students are enrolled at Memorial, the university also offers various counselling programs for those who might want to apply to the medical school. 

No special treatment 

Memorial reserves a certain number of seats in its medical school for students of Indigenous backgrounds. Sturge-Sparkes said some people believe the students are getting special treatment, and not earning their admission on merit but that couldn't be further from the truth.

"A number of these young people, when they get into the doctor of medicine program, they walk away with all kinds of scholarships and awards for their achievements," she said.

"So they are not getting in here only because they are Indigenous, but academically they are on par with the other students in the medical school."

With files from Carolyn Ray