Aboriginal higher learner success factors at vancouver community college

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Geographic Barriers

Interrelated to the financial barriers are geographic barriers where Aboriginal people in rural and remote communities need to access education in their communities and not leave for extended periods of study (ALMD, 2010a, p. 3). For example, nationally, Indigenous Institutes of Higher Learning have flexible delivery models that include 83% of their programs as community-based, which has proven particularly effective for Aboriginal learners (ACCC, 2005), and have been identified as a priority for Consortium partner communities to support community development (Mixon, 2008c, p. 14). For Indigenous Institutes of Higher Learning nationally, almost 83% of programs that are delivered on-campus are offered in member communities (Katenies Research and Management Services and Chignecto Consulting Group, 2006, p. 25). Community-based program delivery also allows VCC to indirectly enhance Aboriginal education supports that are delivered through the community, recognizing that “a key component to providing effective learner resources and support services is building partnerships and integrating services with Aboriginal organizations and service providers” (ACCC, 2005, p. 64).

Lack of Aboriginal Leaders within Post Secondary Institutes

Control of education was established in the AFN (1972) position paper, Indian Control of Indian Education, and by Malatest (2002), who asserted that “where Aboriginals have exercised control of education, there has been markedly higher success rates” (p. 37). Nationally, it is understood at a broad level by colleges and institutions that Aboriginal control is imperative to ensuring the goals and aspirations of Aboriginal people are maintained (ACCC, 2005). Regionally, ALMD (2010a) recognized that “success in Aboriginal post-secondary education is greatly influenced by the role that Aboriginal communities and organizations play in the transitioning and bridging of students into public post-secondary institutions and the workforce” (p. 3).

A great deal of research has recognized that mainstream post-secondary institutions have long-established practices, norms, and policies that are typically seen as serving the values and cultural norms of the dominant non-Aboriginal society (Malatest, 2002). This is perpetuated when there is a lack of Aboriginal people with authority or decision-making responsibility, at all levels within post-secondary institutions, thus negatively impacting the capacity of post-secondary institutes’ ability to support the success of Aboriginal learners.

Systemic Racism

There is a still a palatable legacy of distrust in the Aboriginal community of the education system due to residential schools and other historic practices seen as having a negative and assimilative effect on Aboriginal communities (Malatest, 2002, p. 1). Sadly, the culture of mainstream public post-secondary institutions are recognized among researcher as lacking respect for Aboriginal cultural and cultural differences at the post-secondary level (p. 1). This social, cultural, and racial discrimination continues to persist in the education system, resulting in Aboriginal learners feeling alienated, excluded (ALMD, 2010a, p. 3), and discriminated, isolated, and lonely at postsecondary institutions (Malatest, 2002, p. 1). Indeed, Battiste and McLean (2005) asserted that systemic racism “continues to be the biggest barrier for FN [First Nations] learning” (p. 14). To mitigate this racism, it must first be acknowledged, then mitigated through systems changes, policies, and “formal strategies and support initiatives and programs to specifically address racism in the classroom and at program and institutional levels” (Human Capital Strategies, 2005, p. 86).

Aboriginal Employees Underrepresented

Post-secondary institutions are primarily comprised of non-Aboriginal faculty and staff, many of whom have a limited understanding of Aboriginal needs (ALMD, 2010a, p. 3). Therefore, they lack the understandings of basic values and beliefs that support Aboriginal learners academically with culturally relevant teaching and services.

Within post-secondary institutes, Aboriginal employees are severely underrepresented and have been since the recommendation by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (1996) to hire more “Aboriginal people in administrative and leadership positions” (p. 441). For example, at VCC, there are currently only three Aboriginal teaching faculty who possess the necessary understandings or motivation to develop and deliver or incorporate culturally relevant curricula and course materials, evaluations, assessments, and delivery models and provide indigenized academic counselling. Smith (2003) recommended developing and employing more Aboriginal instructors as leaders that are representative of the communities, First Nations, and populations they serve, and who have a “consciousness about their indigenous roots and responsibilities” (p. 6). Echoing this recommendation, ACCC (2005) has specifically recommended hiring Aboriginal faculty who are knowledgeable about and experienced with Aboriginal communities. This is in addition to training Aboriginal instructors with “the specific cultural methodologies and sensitivities required to resolve the systemic issues affecting students’ disaffection with education” (Battiste & McLean, 2005, p. 8).

Having more Aboriginal teaching faculty will create supports to create and deliver more culturally relevant programs. Currently, there are “insufficient programs and courses at post-secondary institutions that are developed for Aboriginal learners or that incorporate aboriginal worldview in teaching pedagogies or curriculum” (ALMD, 2010a, p. 3). Within this literature review, researchers agreed that curriculum should be developed for and by Aboriginal peoples, based upon local Aboriginal community needs, interests, local labour market needs/trends, and traditional knowledge (Battiste, 2002; Cajete, 1999; Smith, 2003; Wilson, 2008). These same researchers also agreed that teaching should utilize andragogy that meets the unique needs of Aboriginal learners. Additionally, Aboriginal programs should be relevant, accredited, transferable, and strategically ladder into industry-relevant programs that support long-term Aboriginal learner success.

Despite these researchers’ recommendations, non-Aboriginal Canadians continue to set traditional curriculum, guidelines, and testing: “Overall, conventional indicators and metrics used to measure education levels are not in line with attributes of Aboriginal learning, and are thus, for the most part, inapplicable” (Battiste & McLean, 2005, p. 2). Battiste and McLean asserted,

Learning, selecting and legitimating curricular knowledge in education are issues of power, voice, and agency and questions of whose knowledge is included in the curriculum, whose languages are considered as legitimate vehicles for carrying the knowledge, and who is to decide on this knowledge are legitimate questions for curriculum development. (p. 14)

Interestingly, despite the consistency of voice in the research across all areas of need, Malatest (2002) asserted that “Aboriginal control of curriculum would seem to be only indirectly related to the issue of increasing Aboriginal enrolment and success rates” (p. 37), which contradicted the current research of all Aboriginal researchers (AFN, 2010a; Battiste, 2002; Malatest, 2002; Stonechild, 2006; Wilson, 2008).

Overall, “there are considerable gaps in culturally appropriate services for Aboriginal post-secondary learners, which inversely correlate to Aboriginal participation, retention and overall success” (ALMD, 2010a, p. 3). Aboriginal advisors play a critical role in supporting Aboriginal learners to succeed at all levels in the school system and fulfill many roles that facilitate the retention, transition and graduation practices of Aboriginal students. The culturally relevant and holistic supports Aboriginal advisors, advocates, counsellors, and resident Elders provide support the personal development of the learner. Unrah (as cited in Malatest, 2002) noted this is important when

more students drop out of the programs for personal reasons than all other reasons combined. (In fact, academic failure comes last as a reason for leaving.) The most common challenges Aboriginal learners face include: culturally relevant personal and financial counselling; sensitivity and support for referrals for housing and daycare; enhancing relationships and partnerships with the Aboriginal community; enhancing learner readiness and transition through Aboriginal community. Indeed, Aboriginal learners face discrimination, loneliness, and an alien environment [that] come to overwhelm students. (p. 20)

According to Toulouse (2010),

The Native Education Counsellor is the point person at an institution for Aboriginal students. It is so important this role be maintained and maximized (with adequate space) for relevancy in educational services to occur. Aboriginal students require culturally competent counselling services that meet their educational, mental, cultural, emotional and spiritual needs. They need to feel that they belong and are valued and this is provided by the Native Education Counsellor. (p. 6)

It is important to note that our Elders, who are Aboriginal peoples’ traditional knowledge keepers and traditionally were the only recognized teachers, are still a well-respected key element in ensuring the success of Aboriginal learners. This depends upon the degree of meaningful involvement Elders are afforded. Elders teach Aboriginal learners feelings of competence, belonging, and a sense of identity. Elders, along with parents and teaching staff, play a key role in communicating positive expectations that challenge and motivate learners. The role of Elders is foundational to the success of Aboriginal learners. As such, Elders are often included on Aboriginal institute boards and as faculty, and they are invited to participate in a range of courses and activities (First Nations Education Steering Committee, 2008). The underlying assumption within the literature review findings was that all of these barriers that are imbedded within mainstream public post-secondary organizational cultures (i.e., values and beliefs) and systems can be slightly modified or supplemented through add-on programs or services, but not changed.

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