Workshop explores ways of supporting Indigenous students at UBC

“We’re likely intersecting with Indigenous students on a regular basis. We just might not know whether students are Indigenous, what particular needs exists or what kind of support or resources are available for students,” said Karlene Harvey, Academic Advisor at Aboriginal Student Affairs in the Faculty of Arts, at UBC.

In March, CTLT welcomed Harvey and her colleague Deborah Bleackly for a workshop titled “Supporting Indigenous Students at UBC.” The event was hosted as part of the Classroom Climate Series, a year-long program where people across campus have the opportunity to challenge their own assumptions about what they have learned about Aboriginal people and learn more about how they engage with topics that challenge their own social location within the institution.

Harvey, who joined Aboriginal Student Affairs in 2015, offers both cultural and academic support to students at the UBC Vancouver campus. She is of First Nations descent from the Okanagan, Carrier, Kootenay and Tsilhqot’in nations.

“There is a gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university degree attainment globally,” she said. According to 2006 Canadian Statistics data, approximately half the percentage of Aboriginal individuals obtain degrees compared to the rest of the population. At UBC’s Vancouver campus, Aboriginal students comprise 1.9% of the student population. The Aboriginal population of British Columbia is approximately 5% and growing as of the 2006 census.

“If we are trying to create a wholesome environment that reflects the Canadian experience, that reflects population provincially, it’s really important that it’s inclusive to Indigenous people and that we’re working to ensure that they’re a part of the cultural and academic community that we’re creating on campus,” she said.

Recruitment and retention

At the start of the workshop, Harvey and Bleackley posed a question to the participants: “Why is the recruitment and retention of Aboriginal students important?” Among the answers given, participants cited the opportunity to overcome intergenerational trauma from residential schools and the importance of having university degrees, given they are seen as the pinnacle of education.

While Harvey agrees that it’s important for Aboriginal students to attend university for their subjective experience, for their community, and for what kind of nation building that they could be doing, that’s not the whole story.

She says it’s also important to recognize that these students are bringing a lot to institutions like UBC. “They have a lot of power and strength to change how this institution has been in the past. They contribute to the opportunity that all UBC students have to be able to interact, to have access to a broader culture of BC and Canada as well as Indigenous culture.”

Harvey also mentioned the acknowledgment of systematic barriers to education, the opportunity to broaden and strengthen experiences of all students to study alongside Indigenous students and culture and the creation of a valuable cultural identity as important when considering recruitment. With regards to retention, she mentioned community benefits both for UBC and the student’s home community, challenging the status quo and enriching UBC culture.

Indigenization and decolonization

Before turning to a few case studies, Harvey invited participants in the workshop to discuss the differences between the words decolonization and indigenization. Decolonization, she said, identifies the systematic barriers in changing systems to be more culturally appropriate to promote inclusive spaces. Indigenization, on the other hand, is really about incorporating more indigeneity in the institution. You’re consciously working towards including more Aboriginal people, students and staff.

Harvey continued by saying that indigenization refers to transformation and to building. “There’s a relationship that can be put between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students and the overall faculty and staff and the community of UBC to help build something different.” This includes incorporating Aboriginal core content in every Faculty and program across campus and making space for Aboriginal student voices in class.

According to her, more Aboriginal students at UBC will help with the indigenizing of the curriculum – change within the institution itself and how we’re educating students. “Indigenizing is acknowledging a multitude of ways of knowing and accessing and interpreting research, not just following a colonial model of education.”

“There is tremendous work to be done in Aboriginal community outreach, recruitment and retention in Canadian universities,” Harvey concluded.