Summarizing the feedback from all focus group sessions, Aboriginal learners identified factors for their success would contain more cultural integration that include: improved knowledge of self, individual learning style, and learning goals; improved self-concept, self-esteem and pride in oneself; improved knowledge of traditional practices; improved feeling of student safety with institution; improved grades; interest in the curriculum; clear career aspirations; improved skills to contribute to my community; and more graduates (FG1, FG2, FG3, FG4).
The findings are supported by the regional indicators of success articulated in the Indigenous Institutes of Higher Learning framework (Tindall & Juniper, 2010) that reflects First Nations values and includes personal development, leadership, cultural development, wisdom development, student satisfaction, and academics (p. iv). Interview participants agreed with this finding and that there is a greater need to support cultural integration within education, as seen in the success of the 2010 VCC Aboriginal Gateways to Health Careers pilot project (INT1, INT2).
Finding 4: What is Currently Working well to Support Aboriginal Learners at VCC
Focus group and interview participants all reported being very satisfied with the Aboriginal Gathering Spaces and the services of AES. Following a discussion with students, one focus group participant summarized his feelings by stating, “I am really happy with how things are going at the Gathering Space and with the help everyone offers here. I can’t think of anything I would change, expect that we need more of you guys throughout the college” (FG2). In a very heartfelt statement, another student stated, “I like coming here and it is really nice and safe for me. I like being able to use the resources here like the printer, and help with resume writing” (FG1).
More detailed feedback was collected at two of the focus groups when students spoke about the support they receive from AES staff and Elders. This included one student stating,
I really like having this place here as a sanctuary, and everyone once and a while, when I have a problem with delays, bureaucracy, or an instructor, when I don’t want to say anything wrong, I can come here to unload or talk to someone and help me to resolve problems in a way that gets me results. When you advocate for me, it really helps also, and I want to see that continue. (FG1)
Another student stated that the advocacy role that the staff have provided and the commitment to Aboriginal learners VCC demonstrated by adhering to the Aboriginal Enrolment Policy (VCC, 1994) exceeded what she saw and experienced at other institutes. She stated,
When I had the issue, and they told me at the office that they don’t recognize the Aboriginal Enrolment Policy, I couldn’t get into the course I needed. She [the Director] called and had it resolved right away. That was amazing as a resource I could actually talk to somebody who could facilitate the changes and get me to the top of the waitlist. When I first came here years ago I was told we would like to help Aboriginal students, but there is nothing we can do. (FG1)
This feedback reflects a greater sense of support that Aboriginal learners are feeling at VCC with the increased advocacy provided that are increasing retention and graduation rates.
Consistent with Storytellers’ Foundation & Gitxsan Wet’suwet’en Education Society (2005) findings that at the heart of First Nations post-secondary institutes success is the ability to include “traditional language and culture as their main best practice” (p. 5), many VCC students commented positively on the AES cultural workshops undertaken quarterly. These cultural activities include sharing circles, drum making workshops, rattle making workshops, and weaving workshops with Elders. On this subject, one student stated, “I enjoy the welcoming atmosphere here and being able to talk to the staff and Elders here” (FG2). This student expanded to discuss the scope of cultural activities that have been successfully integrated into the Aboriginal Gateways to Health Program (FG2). Again, two interview participants agreed that the work of the AES was great in supporting Aboriginal learner success (INT1, INT2). The third senior leader interview participant was not able to meet for the full hour, and although the senior leader indicated agreement, specific comments were not provided.
The majority of feedback from focus group participants focused upon what would work well in the future to meet the needs of Aboriginal learners to succeed at VCC. These findings were themed into the following categories: (a) the need for more Aboriginal employees within the post-secondary education system, (b) increased understanding of Aboriginal peoples amongst the student body, (c) more Aboriginal cohort and blended programs, (d) enhanced cultural services and activities, and (e) enhanced understanding of Aboriginal peoples by all employees within VCC. When interview participants were provided these themed categories derived from focus group feedback, they agreed.
Need for More Aboriginal Employees at all Levels within the College
The most prevalent theme from all of the focus groups was the lack of Aboriginal peoples employed at the college who could understand and support learners’ success. The three senior leaders who were interviewed understood and affirmed this finding, with one interview participant stating that VCC was “silent on diversity” and that current hiring practices “duplicate the norm” (INT1). When research has proven a strong link between racial diversity and performance (Ely, 2004, p. 759), this is a significant concern when the community VCC serves has the highest percentage population of Aboriginal peoples in the BC. This is compounded by the growing population of Aboriginal peoples that is expected to grow by 17.6% by 2026 (Izen, 2008, p. 25), requiring VCC to develop capacity in order to remain relevant and sustainable.
Although focus group participants initially discussed the positions with whom they have most direct contact, including instructors, the registrar’s office, advising, and Elders, they cited the need for more Aboriginal people to be working within VCC in all areas and at all levels as the most important improvement VCC could make. One student stated, “We need more of you guys here so you can help us” (FG3). Focus group participants stated, “It’s horrible how few of us work in the college”; “We need more Aboriginal people to work here if they are ever going to understand us” (FG1); and “We need more Aboriginal people in registration, teachers, counsellors . . . everywhere” (FG2). In particular, there was a strong interest from all focus groups to have the college’s two part-time, short-term contracted resident Elders to become permanent full-time employees. One student stated, “We need our Elders here to talk with them because talking with Elders is really good medicine” (FG2). Aboriginal learners also discussed the need to recruit, retain, and develop for more Aboriginal leaders within the college to support the changes necessary to integrate Aboriginal culture within VCC. Students felt that most Aboriginal people would be more effective because of their consistent values and beliefs that allow them to “understand the needs of Aboriginal people and how to work with us” (FG3).
For focus group participants, this lack of representation directly impacted learners in the relationship and experiences learners have had with their instructors. This is particularly important when this was the second most important support learners have identified through student surveys (Dipuma, 2009, p. 9). Currently, with only three permanent Aboriginal instructors at VCC, it is clear why the majority of experiences shared in focus groups reflect a lack of understanding of Aboriginal peoples at VCC. In order to protect the confidentiality of the learners, specific stories are not included. Focus group participants also stated that the resolution processes were difficult. It is also important to understand that many of VCC’s Aboriginal learners are vulnerable due to the effects of intergenerational residential school syndrome, and this lack of understanding of Aboriginal peoples has resulted in systemic racism that is understood to be the biggest barrier for Aboriginal peoples in post-secondary education (Battiste & McLean, 2005, p. 14).
All senior leaders interviewed agreed, and in the context of discussing planning, one leader stated that to change this would require a foundational culture shift within VCC. This interviewee cited Wilcox (2008) as having “summarized it best by saying culture always trumps strategy” (INT3). One senior leader interviewee stated that this situation was not new and that some post-secondary institutes in Canada are already working to resolve this disparity by establishing diversity strategies that include commitments for hiring and developing Aboriginal employees within the institution (INT1). One leader cited York University’s (2001) Affirmative Action Plan as an exemplary practice that includes a strategy and measures that have benefited the institute. Another senior leader interviewee commented that, indeed “VCC ‘community’ college is not reflective of the community and that this is seen in the accepted education and services we provide” (INT2). Two interviewees agreed that leadership must identify diversity as a priority within the college strategic planning. One interviewee noted that most plans fail in their execution and that in order to support Aboriginal learners, “funding or human rights isn’t the driver, it’s about doing the right thing” (INT3). The same person further noted that “this is about the integration of Aboriginal culture throughout the college” (INT3).
Interestingly, the second most important finding was the prevalence of peer racism that Aboriginal learners felt within the college, primarily from immigrant learners. After lengthy discussion on this topic, most of which have not been included to protect the identity of the learners, it was clear that this kind of racism made Aboriginal learners not feel welcome or accepted at the college. Common statements learners shared were other learners saying things like “Why are you so special?”, “You get everything paid for”, and often being ostracized and talked about when others found out that they were Aboriginal. Interviewees also described this situation as one where “lack of information creates false assumptions and racism” (IINT2). Focus group participants reported this peer racism as negatively affecting their self-esteem and that it was very difficult to deal with this kind of racism.
This surprising finding was discussed with interview participants, with one stating, “It makes sense given the lack of knowledge immigrants have about Aboriginal people” (INT2) when they arrive in Canada and the diversity within the immigrant student body. This situation is a serious cause for concern given the demographic trends indicating a 20% increase in the percentage of visible minorities in the Vancouver metro-region expected in the next two decades (Government of BC, Multiculturalism and Immigration Branch, 2008, p. 2). Also clear was VCC`s ability to play a leadership role in educating immigrants on Aboriginal peoples’ history, which could mitigate this expression of racism.
Aboriginal Teaching Methodologies
Focus group participants articulated an interest for more Aboriginal programs in all fields of study, incorporating Aboriginal teaching methodologies including language, jewellery design, graphics, baking, and small business, which would support broad economic development. These kinds of programs are understood at the college to be cohort programs. Within most Aboriginal cohort programs in Canada, indigenous teaching methods include learning in the context of culture and are constructivist (Battiste & McLean, 2005). The importance of cultural revitalization as a motivating factor for Aboriginal peoples is important to consider in curriculum design.
Within VCC, the Aboriginal Culinary Arts Program is the only permanent program, along with three short-term Aboriginal Health course offerings. Over the past two years, the Aboriginal Culinary Arts Program delivery has slowly started increasing Aboriginal methodologies in teaching, while the Aboriginal Health Programs have designed the delivery of their cohort programs utilizing Aboriginal methodologies. The indicators of success may be informed by the attrition rate, which for the former is high while the latter is very low. This was also supported by focus group feedback, where high praise for Aboriginal health programs was cited by feedback such as: “I got really involved in cultural stuff during the Gateways Program” (FG2); and “I like sharing circles like we did in the ACCESS Program every couple weeks” (FG2).
Learners also discussed an interest for Aboriginal elective blended courses that could be offered across programs where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people could learn “to understand First Nations peoples and communities, which is very different” (FG2). It was also noted that this kind of elective program if offered to ESL students could substantially mitigate racism in the college and metro-region in the future.
In addition, interview participants affirmed the substantial need for “more Aboriginal cohort and blended programs” (INT2) and elective courses at VCC as an important component that would allow VCC to respond to Aboriginal community needs. Interviewees also noted that it would be important to use a teaching methodology, such as constructivism, that works well with Aboriginal learners and “adjust entrance requirements and incorporate developmental education into Aboriginal programs to support transition and access” (INT1).
Aboriginal Cultural Services
Aboriginal learners’ satisfaction with existing cultural services was stated by focus group participants as:
I really like having this place here as a sanctuary when I have problems. I can come here and feel safe to talk with someone to help me resolve my problems in a way that gets me results. (FG1)
I like coming here and it really nice and safe for me. I like being able to use the resources here like the computers, printers and help with writing. (FG2)
Interview participants who also expressed satisfaction with the services provided by the AES department often commented on the Aboriginal Enrolment Policy also, which they agreed was working very well (INT1, INT2, INT3).
Within the scope of what the AES department and VCC could do better, focus group participants expressed a strong interest to see “two to three Advisors at each campus” to meet the needs of existing students who often have to wait for the Aboriginal advisors, who are currently overwhelmed with meetings with new Aboriginal learners enquiring at the college. Focus group participants also expressed an interest to enhance services with new offerings, such as study skills, test preparation and test taking, writing skills, stress management, resume writing, job hunt and interview skills, and entrepreneurship workshops. The second most important service requested by focus group participants was more cultural workshops with Elders, cultural documentaries, and discussion groups to support cultural revitalization by many Aboriginal learners who are struggling with identity issues and cultural loss. One student expressed this by saying,
I didn’t grow up culturally. My mom didn’t teach me those things, and most of my grandparents and Elders are gone, so I really appreciate the Elders here who I can give a hug to and who can share their knowledge, wisdom, and insight with us. I and a lot of people I know didn’t grow up with our culture, and making these things readily available like the drum making workshop and other cultural activities make us strong. (FG2)
There was also an interest to have support through an Aboriginal peer tutoring network that could use the Gathering Space on evenings and weekends at the Broadway campus, where the majority of developmental programs are offered and where peer support is recognized as very important. In addition, there was a request for additional computers and a quiet study area at both Gathering Spaces. Finally, students asked for better recognition of Aboriginal protocols introduced into the graduation ceremonies and celebrating Aboriginal graduate role models. This is an important cultural value, where student role models are recognized as a motivating factor for Aboriginal learners, by providing the inspirational “support needed to successfully complete a post-secondary program . . . [and serve as] a mentor with the knowledge of the institution programs, credits, transferability, funding and ongoing emotional support for the student” (Human Capital Strategies, 2005, p. 80).
Understanding of Aboriginal peoples with VCC Employees
The current conditions and circumstances of Aboriginal learners’ social and economic disparity, heavily represented within the literature reviewed, is important to understanding Aboriginal peoples. However, for Aboriginal participants, it was the least discussed topic. The most important finding from this theme, however, was the importance for non-Aboriginal employees within VCC to have an understanding these situations and sensitivities to them in order to support Aboriginal learner success. For focus group participants, the key understanding and sensitivities they would like to see improved within VCC are the economic conditions of many Aboriginal learners.
The social and economic challenges Aboriginal learners face was articulated by participants as primarily funding and financing. This was consistent with the findings of the Aboriginal Learners Survey (Dipuma, 2009). Focus group participants who did receive funding support from their Bands said it was very difficult to obtain, and funding was challenged by a slow approval process at the Band level, which participants felt unable to resolve. It was clear that often these barriers were insurmountable, and VCC must be sensitive to these issues, which one learner described by saying,
[VCC staff] have to understand that Band funding is not timed the same time as the registration process. I had sent my registration two months in advance and was twentieth on both waitlists for the courses I needed, and my Band funding did not come in until a month after the registration deadline.
This situation is on-going for learners who do receive funding for two or three year certificates or diplomas, but must still go through the funding approval and payment challenges each semester due to incongruent systems. These processes are made more difficult due to insensitivities to this challenge.
Senior leader interview participants did recognize the need for improved levels of service at VCC and the need for staff to be more diverse, sensitive, and responsive to the needs of Aboriginal learners. One senior leader identified that plans and processes are already underway to achieve this objective.