Aboriginal higher learner success factors at vancouver community college

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Vancouver Community College (VCC) is British Columbia’s (BC) oldest and largest community college and continues to serve a diverse urban population (Legg, as cited in VCC, 2009, p. ii). The mandate of VCC is “to provide relevant educational programming for students so they are job ready. One of the ways it does so is by working with industry, including the urban Vancouver community” (K. Kinloch, personal communication, October 26, 2010). VCC receives its mandate from the College and Institute Act (1996) with policy and significant funding from the Government of BC, Ministry of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development (ALMD). In 2007, ALMD developed a proactive and comprehensive Aboriginal strategy to guide the provincial post-secondary sector and

for institutions and communities to come together as partners and actively engage in the transformative change of Aboriginal post-secondary education. It calls for a new focus on opportunities for the future and a commitment to collaboration and change . . . [and] close the educational gap for Aboriginal learners. (pp. 12)

Despite the intention expressed in the 2007 ALMD Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education Strategy and Action Plan (hereafter referred to as the Aboriginal Strategy Plan), the ALMD (2010a) Aboriginal Service Plan, and the VCC First Nations Education Policy and Procedures (VCC, 1994), the growing population of Aboriginal peoples in the VCC catchment area continues to be underserved (VCC, 2009, p. 1). In order for VCC to fulfill its mandate (K. Kinloch, personal communication, October 26, 2010) substantial systems and organizational changes will need to be made with respect to serving Aboriginal people, now and into the coming decade.

According to the 2006 census, Vancouver is home to the largest Aboriginal population in BC (e.g., 40,310 or 21%), which is growing three times as fast as the non-Aboriginal population (Metro Vancouver, 2008, p. 1). This growing population is “also much younger than non-Aboriginals, with about 25% of the Aboriginal population in metro under the age of 15, about 10 points higher than the overall population” (VCC, 2009, p. 5). The Aboriginal population baby boom represents a primarily young population where there is a critical need for skills and training. This need is compounded when 35% of Aboriginal people locally have not graduated from high school and the reported 2006 unemployment rate for Aboriginal peoples was nearly 22% (p. 5).

The ALMD (2007) Aboriginal Strategy Plan is a direct response to the fast growing Aboriginal population growth rate, which also presents an avenue to address the untapped labour pool with skills and training can mitigate labour and skills shortages projected into 2019 (ALMD, 2010b). Indeed, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce (n.d.) stated that “the Aboriginal population represents the largest untapped labour force in the country” (p. 1). Despite this population growth rate and the potential labour force benefit to the region, VCC reported an Aboriginal student participation rate of 2.29% and a graduation rate of 2% for 2008/09 (Mixon, 2010, p. 6), which is 3% lower than the VCC Aboriginal Education & Services Department’s (AES) participation rate goal (p. 14). The AES department’s participation goal of 5% is consistent with ALMD’s (2010c) goal of 5.33% by 2015 (p. 4).

As a First Nations consultant, I became interested in this area of research when I had the opportunity to provide technical support for the local Aboriginal Service Plan (ALMD, 2010a) roll out intended to support Aboriginal higher learners in the greater Vancouver region. I quickly became passionate about this issue, which I originally undertook so I could be of service to my community. As the research slowly unfolded, I came to realize that it also allowed me to deeply consider questions about myself, improve my understandings, and overcome the trauma effects resulting from inter-generational residential school that I inherited from my mother. This understanding has allowed me to achieve long sought after state of grace with myself, others, and my community. Within this paper I use an Aboriginal paradigm and vernacular that is derived from a lifetimes of experiential learning that includes Aboriginal teaching.

The focus of this major research project has examined: What factors contribute to the success of Aboriginal learners at VCC? Sub-questions that contributed to a deeper understanding of the research question included:

1. Who are Aboriginal learners at VCC and how are they supported?

2. How does the traditional Aboriginal education system contrast with contemporary educational systems?

3. What are Aboriginal defined indicators of success in post-secondary education?

4. What currently works well to support Aboriginal learner success and what are the current barriers?

5. What would work well in the future to meet the needs of Aboriginal learners to succeed at VCC?

The Opportunity and its Significance

The mission of VCC is to serve a diverse urban community by providing post-secondary programs and services that prepare learners for ongoing education, direct entry into employment, career advancement, and greater participation in the community (VCC, 2009, p. 10). The opportunity for VCC is to better understand the factors that contribute to Aboriginal learner success and improved participation, graduation rates, and community partnerships. The timeliness of this research was excellent in consideration of the relatively new interest to support Aboriginal learners generated from The Transformative Change Accord (Government of BC, Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, 2005), the ALMD (2007) Aboriginal Strategy Plan, and the VCC strategic planning process for 2011-2013 that is currently being launched.

In 2007, ALMD launched an Aboriginal service plan pilot (as cited in ALMD, n.d., 2007), for which VCC played a “leadership role in the sector as one of three post-secondary partners in the Coastal Corridor Consortium in collaboration with community partners” (VCC, 2009, p. 5), with the goal to meet the ALMD (2007) objective:

Increase the access, retention, completion and transitions opportunities for Aboriginal learners; increase the receptivity and relevance of post-secondary institutions and programs for Aboriginal learners, including providing support for initiatives that address systemic barriers; and strengthen partnerships and collaboration in Aboriginal post-secondary education. It is intended that this process will provide the opportunity for Aboriginal communities to participate in shaping programs and services that address the academic, social, emotional, and cultural needs of learners. (p. 1)

The Coastal Corridor Consortium (Consortium) was formalized as an unincorporated society in 2008 with the vision of achieving parity in educational participation and graduation rates, informed by qualitative and quantitative research that I undertook between 2007 and 2009. In 2009, I was asked to fill in as VCC Interim Director of Aboriginal Education and continued to undertake research to inform department and college planning. One final piece of research I completed for the Consortium in 2009 was the development of a comprehensive qualitative Aboriginal learner’s survey (Dipuma, 2009). The survey findings only provided a partial picture of the understandings necessary to support localized solutions to support Aboriginal learners. This qualitative research has informed the prior Consortium research and provided VCC an opportunity to undertake systems changes that can not only enhance the success of Aboriginal learners, but also improve the capacity of the institutions for the benefit of all learners.

VCC’s (2009) mission is to serve “a diverse urban community by providing excellent programs and services that prepare learners for ongoing education, direct entry into employment, career advancement, and greater participation in the community.”1 In recognizing this opportunity to support local labour market development, it is important to recognize that, according to the BC Progress Board (2007) and ALMD (2010b), the majority of job growth in the next decade will be increasingly stressed by an aging population, labour market shortages of 80,000 workers, and skills shortages that will negatively impact labour force growth, economic growth, and tax revenue. For most job openings projected to 2019, post-secondary education will be required. VCC has a unique opportunity to meet the needs of the fast-growing local Aboriginal population, who more than non-Aboriginal peoples participate at local colleges (Dipuma, 2009; Government of BC, 2009, p. 34). Such a strategy would support the goals of ALMD (2007) and the mission of VCC, by developing the skills and knowledge of the young and growing Aboriginal population who represent an

underutilized pool of labour in anticipation of the next economic surge . . . [with] improved market knowledge of the local consumer base. . . . [when] much of the Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal labour market disparity is linked to education and the unique cultural, social and structural characteristics that distinguish Aboriginal people from the population at large. (Canadian Chamber of Commerce, n.d., p. 1)

The research recommendations arising from this study if implemented well could substantially enable VCC to not only fulfill its ALMD mandate and achieve the ASP strategic goals and objectives (ALMD, 2007), but to also serve as a leader in BC. If this research were not undertaken, ALMD, VCC, and the Consortium may not fully realize their goals of achieving parity in educational outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in the local area. On-going disparity would likely result in increased rates of Aboriginal unemployment for a young and growing population, skills and labour shortages will increase, economic recovery and growth will be negatively impacted, and there will be increased social costs for remedial health and social support programs and, ultimately, increased tax burdens on all Canadians (Canadian Chamber of Commerce, n.d., p. 1).

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