Higher Education Strategy Associates

The “Standard Model” in Aboriginal Services

One of the things I’ve noticed about services provided to Aboriginal students in Canadian PSE is that somehow, Canadian institutions have all arrived at essentially the same model.  Here it is:

The recruitment function: If you’re going to recruit on-reserve, you need someone to visit reserves.  Repeatedly. First Nations students aren’t going to make a multi-year commitment to you unless you visit them, look them in the eye and tell them “you can succeed with us and we’ll do what we can to help you do so.”

The “communicating with band offices” function:  Someone has to fill in the progress reports to bands so that students can continue to receive PSSSP support.  Occasionally, someone also has to dun the bands so they’ll actually pay the PSSSP monies owing.

The counseling function:  Where Aboriginal students are mostly from urban areas, this is pretty basic: someone who can do a bit of academic and personal counseling, perhaps linked with some academic and career support as well.  But where you have large numbers of students from fly-in communities, this function becomes much more about healing and dealing with extreme trauma (in some institutions it’s relatively common to hear of students interrupting their term because of the death or suicide of a family member).  These students also have serious issues regarding adjustment to urban life.  Few have ever paid rent, many have never taken a bus – overall, the transition is overwhelming. Counseling support for these students is actually seriously underfunded.

The academic support function: There are a number of institutions that have created specialized academic support for Aboriginal students. In some cases, it’s to bring kids from communities with weak secondary schools – again, mostly fly-in communities – up to a grade 12 level (it would be better to have specialized bridge programs, but PSSSP unfortunately doesn’t fund those).  In others, it’s about providing extra support for students going into professional programs (e.g., the University of Manitoba’s ACCESS program).

The social function: This involves programming Aboriginal activities – bringing elders and other speakers to campus, arranging feasts and pow-wows. Indirectly, this is about persistence – since these events attract Aboriginal students who might not come forward to ask for services, they are a means to identify clients for future assistance.

And finally, there’s space – a separate place for Aboriginal students to congregate. Sometimes this is done brilliantly (FNUC, UVic) and sometimes it’s abysmal (Lakehead).  Put all this together, and you have the model suite of Aboriginal student services.

Does it work?  There’s not much good evaluative research, though some of it was validated through the LE,NONET Project. But it’s what knowledgeable front-line workers tend to recommend, which is a good recommendation in itself.

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