Aboriginal higher learner success factors at vancouver community college

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Organizational Context

In examining the influences that affect Aboriginal learner success at VCC, it is important to understand: (a) the college’s history, (b) the objectives of the organization, (c) the local and global environment within which it operates, and (d) the opportunity that is the central focus of this research project. VCC is BC’s oldest college, established in 1965 by the Vancouver School Board, gaining independence from the school board in 1974, and achieving its designation in 1978 (VCC, 2009, p. 4). Currently, VCC employs 1,200 staff, who serve “roughly 25,000 students a year” (p. ii), across eleven schools and centres of instruction.

In 1994, a series of First Nations policies were developed to improve access to achieve parity with non-Aboriginal learners in Canada. These policies include access, establishing an Aboriginal Education Council with a relationship to the Board, enhanced learner support mechanisms, and First Nations employment equity. The only policy that has been partially activated is the Aboriginal Enrolment Policy (VCC, 2008), supported by a BC Human Rights Tribunal exemption.

VCC is currently in significant transition, with a new leadership model and emerging strategic plan that is expected to be completed in the late fall of 2010 or early 2011. Therefore, organizational context will be set in the existing strategy. Within the existing strategy, the VCC (2009) vision and mission are:

As B.C.’s No. 1 college, the graduates of our Schools and Centres will be candidates of choice for job entry, career advancement, or further education. (p. 8)

The mission of VCC is to serve the local 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.2 VCC’s values currently are: access, environment, fiscal responsibility, high quality, improvement, leadership, participation in decision making, personal and professional growth, respect, and cooperation (p. 8). Internally, the VCC goals are to maintain financial viability and improve organizational effectiveness (p. 2).

Within the current strategic plan goals and objectives, the college has recognized within the VCC (2008) VCC Strategic Plan Update 2005-08 that a distinct opportunity exists with the “large urban Aboriginal population underserved” (p. 1). Within this same plan, VCC’s commitment to Aboriginal learners is articulated through the goal to improve learning opportunities and the objective to “increase the number of aboriginal learners” (p. 2). VCC is also committed to the goal of building alliances in key sectors, with the objective to strengthen partnerships with other educational institutions, industry associations, Aboriginal organizations, and community groups (p. 2).

This research project followed the action research work undertaken in 2008 and 2009 with the Consortium, which started with local, regional, and national research of Exemplary Practices in Accessibility for Aboriginal Learners (Mixon, 2008a). The goal of that research was to identify barriers and studies of promising practices that could inform planning. Following the completion of the2008 research, the Consortium undertook research on the Aboriginal Community Post-Secondary Education Needs Framework (Mixon, 2009), which resulted in the identification of educational programs that were requested by individual learners, those aligned with labour market needs, and those that were identified by communities to support community development. In 2009, the Consortium decided to undertake further study of individual learner experiences with their institutional partners and developed a comprehensive Aboriginal learners’ survey with VCC and Capilano University (Dipuma, 2009). This qualitative research provided a greater understanding of financial barriers, personal supports needed, and the role of instructors, Elders, and Aboriginal advisors in supporting the success of learners. My research project has been intended to provide the qualitative data that will enhance the Consortium’s understanding of individual learner needs, expectations, and aspirations. The phases of Consortium action research are outlined in Figure 1.

Figure . Consortium Aboriginal learner research.

AES is the department of VCC that is directly engaged with Aboriginal communities and organizations to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes for VCC that take the next step in the evolution of customer loyalty to integration (Briscoe, 2002, p. ii). A critical component of the VCC Aboriginal Education Strategy 2010–2013 (Mixon, 2010) is establishing mechanisms to support the sustainability of the Consortium and community integration, which has been a catalyst for the VCC AES department’s work and outcomes.

The VCC Aboriginal Education Strategy 2010–2013 (Mixon, 2010) echoed the vision, mission, values, and strategic plan of VCC (2006) and built upon the strategic initiatives of the Consortium (VCC, 2007). The focus of the VCC AES strategic plan is to sustain the Consortium and community integration activities, sustain Elders’ representation and cultural workshops, and establish an Aboriginal bursary in perpetuity. Other components within the AES strategic plan for 20102013 are intended to enhance or fill gaps including: increasing awareness and access to VCC throughout the region through VCC workshops and community presentations, mailings, web presence, and an on-line college readiness video, while, at the same time, enhancing student services. Of critical importance to the AES department, the strategy identifies developing Aboriginal programs in strategic program areas that meet Aboriginal community and labour market needs. Finally, the VCC AES strategy contributes to the organizational development of the college through on-going Teaching Aboriginal Higher Learners Workbook (Mixon, 2008c) and subsequent emergent VCC strategies that support Aboriginal learners.

Currently, although the VCC First Nations Employment Equity Policy (as cited in VCC, 1994) exists, it has not been activated. At the present time, there are only six (0.005%) Aboriginal people of the 1,200 VCC employees who serve more than 600 Aboriginal learners at VCC, with only three being teaching faculty. Recognition of the need for more Aboriginal instructors at post-secondary institutes in Canada was articulated by the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) who, in 2005, specifically recommended “hiring Aboriginal faculty who are knowledgeable about and experienced with Aboriginal communities” (p. 80). Researchers have agreed that Aboriginal employees can help to “resolve the systemic issues affecting students’ dissatisfaction with education” (Battiste & McLean, 2005, p. 8) in post-secondary institutes, where “long-established practices, norms, and policies are typically seen as serving the values and cultural norms of the dominant non-Aboriginal society” (Malatest, 2002, p. 18).

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