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UBC program increases aboriginal PhD graduation rate

Shelly Johnson, whose traditional name is Mukwa Musayette, meaning “walking with the bears,” was among the aboriginal graduates who recently…

By oalao , in Education Feature story , on November 24, 2012

Aboriginal PhD students (L-R) Donna Lester-Smith, Madeleine Maclvor and Todd Ormiston celebrate during the convocation ceremony at UBC. (Photo: Olajumoke Dapo-Ogunsola)

Shelly Johnson, whose traditional name is Mukwa Musayette, meaning “walking with the bears,” was among the aboriginal graduates who recently received a PhD during the May 2012 ceremony at UBC.

The event was more than just a celebration of personal accomplishment for Johnson. She is one of 11 aboriginal students who got graduate degrees this year from UBC’s faculty of education – the highest number ever in the faculty’s history or for any education faculty in Canada.

The 50-year-old Saulteaux from Keeseekoose First Nations in Saskatchewan, was one of the 15 aboriginal students who enrolled in 2006. That’s when a special graduate program that focused on indigenous leadership and policy began at the faculty.

The program specifically uses the history and culture of indigenous people to create models of teaching and mentoring, which can be taken back to their communities, if graduates decide to teach.

Johnson said she chose UBC because it was the only school that provided the opportunity to take classes in indigenous studies as a master’s program — where she started before her PhD — in Canada.

“I feel very happy that I enrolled in the program. I am happy I achieved my dreams. It is an opportunity to help young people think about post-secondary education and the future.”

Johnson was one of the five graduates during the first ceremony. The other six graduated in November.

In the past, the number of aboriginal graduates from the faculty has hovered around one or two.

The associate dean of indigenous education, Jo-Ann Archibald, attributes the success to strategies put in place by the faculty and the school to encourage indigenous student enrolment.  Of the original 15 students the program attracted, 13 were First Nations from Canada. Another two were from other indigenous groups in other countries.

“This program greatly increased the number of our students,” She said.  “We also provided funding for newly admitted indigenous PhD students.”

Jo-Ann Archibald, associate dean, school of indigenous education, dressed in her traditional outfit to celebrate the increase in aboriginal graduates at UBC. (Photo: Olajumoke Dapo-Ogunsola)

 That funding covered tuition only.

Johnson was quick to state that, she, like the other students, took advantage of the funding provided by the school.

 But it wasn’t just money that lured the new crop of students.

“We have also tripled the number of our indigenous faculty members since 2008, and this helped attract more students,” said Archibald.

This development brings B.C. a step closer to its first-step target of producing 250 masters and doctoral graduates in the province.

B.C. has been working to achieve that through a special program called Supporting Aboriginal Graduates Enhancement, a cross-university initiative to mentor First Nations students.

This UBC faculty of education program has been applauded by the community.

 ”I think this is a great achievement, and a result of a long-term plan,” said Dr. Lee Brown, director of UBC’s Institute for Aboriginal Health. “We want to assume leadership.”

 Impact on Communities:

The hope among communities is that having more aboriginal graduates will produce mentors and role models for high school students, who struggle to graduate.

According to B.C. statistics from 2009, about half of the province’s aboriginal students do not graduate from high school within six years of starting Grade 8 compared to the almost 80-per-cent figure for non-aboriginal students.

Having PhD graduates doing research on education then moving into it will, it’s hoped, put them in leadership positions, and can help change what’s offered in the schools. That’s key, says Brown.

“It is about the role of our history, the aboriginal mathematics, and science. We want to make our educational system more multicultural,” he said.

 The future of indigenous education in UBC:

 Presently, only the faculty of education offers an aboriginal graduate program.

 But the university is about to see a wave of more aboriginal-focused courses.

 There are plans to place more priority on indigenous studies at the undergraduate, masters and doctoral level at the university. Most of that that new curriculum is coming within the next couple of years, but the wave is starting already.

 The introduction of aboriginal legal education into the law school curriculum is an example. First-year law students will take a class focused on aboriginal rights and treaties in Canada as a requirement for graduation.

 “We still anticipate a time when every student at UBC will take a class in aboriginal studies,” said Brown.


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