Students benefit from partnership between Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre and MSVU
Learning, connection and support are key elements of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre’s transition year initiative, a venture that’s providing Indigenous students with post-secondary education in partnership with Mount Saint Vincent University.
Known as the Aboriginal Academic Access Post-Secondary (AAAPS) program, the pilot project launched last year and in September 2020 welcomed its second intake of students. The program is delivered via in-person classes at the Friendship Centre (with pandemic protocols in place, of course), giving participants the opportunity to get to know one another and learn in a community setting while also accessing the cultural supports and other services the Centre provides.
Program coordinator Brittany Whynot, a member of Acadia First Nation, believes she would have benefited had a program like AAAPS been in place as she made the transition from her small community on the south shore of Nova Scotia to university in Halifax more than a decade ago. She says the program’s in-person learning combined with other supports is the key to its success.
“This program is held at the Friendship Centre so there are wrap-around services for Indigenous students,” she said. “We have cultural nights, senior youth nights, there are parent support programs across the street, and there are a lot of different activities and services. There are tons of things that happen right here at the Friendship Centre, so having these students here in the same building is a huge benefit.”
AAAPS program advisor and Special Advisor to the President on Aboriginal Affairs at MSVU, Patrick Small Legs-Nagge, shares his perspective. “Having peer support combined with the wrap-around services at the Friendship Centre is a win-win,” he said. “There’s an elder the students can talk to if necessary. They have many great things going on at the centre that these students have access to.”
But, says Patrick, the program’s importance for the students goes far beyond cultural and other supports available to participants. “This program also really helps the students acquire their First Nation identity,” he said. “It’s so important to who you are as a person; it gives you so much more self-confidence when you’re proud of who you are and you know who you are. Now that they have that stronger sense of identity, things will still hit them but some will fall off their shoulders in regards to the prejudice, oppression or racism that still exists, unfortunately, in Canada.”
Alicia Littlejohn, a student who was a member of the 2019 intake who is now continuing her studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, agrees that studying together with other Indigenous students was beneficial. “I liked the classroom setting. There were only 14 of us, so we got to know each other. In the past, I would go to school and go home and there was no sense of community and definitely no Indigenous students. Being Indigenous is a part of you – not just in school, but in general. Speaking about the history of Canada and topics to do with racism and colonialism can be a little bit awkward, but being with people who understood it felt a little bit easier.”
Of the students who participated in the program’s first year, most went on to enrol at university or college in Nova Scotia. One secured new employment in her chosen career.
AAAPS academic lead, MSVU Arts and Science Dean Carrie Dawson, has witnessed the strengths of the program first-hand while serving as a liaison between the Friendship Centre and MSVU and helping to guide participating students.
“There were the obvious kind of wins that had to do with seeing students graduate from the program and enter a university or college of their choice, but the program has also fostered a sense of cultural pride in its students, and that success owes a lot to the range of available supports, including smudging, tutoring, child care and language classes,” she said. “When you combine that with really great instructors who are committed to the principles of two-eyed seeing – foregrounding Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing – I think you come out with students who feel resilient and proud.”
Brittany says she is in ongoing contact with both Carrie and Patrick as the three collaborate to keep the program running smoothly. She adds that the students take a set curriculum of MSVU courses including communication, sociology, psychology, library research and math for which they receive full credit, and each student also has the opportunity to take an elective of their choice. She notes that while this academic year’s intake of six is a bit smaller than last year’s due to the pandemic, AAAPS has so far drawn a range of participants.
“We have a mix of people coming directly out of high school as well as mature students. It’s for Indigenous students only, but it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Last year we had somebody from Vancouver, we’ve had some from New Brunswick, we’ve had some from Nova Scotia, we have had one from Calgary and we did have an Inuit person last year. It’s always nice to hear about the differences and similarities in Indigenous communities right across Canada,” she said.
Alicia, who graduated from the program last year, says that as the program’s coordinator, Brittany plays a critical role – providing the students with opportunities to learn about universities across Nova Scotia and keeping track of how they’re doing throughout the academic year. “Brittany is a huge asset to the program. She worked as an advocate for us with the university and she would check in on us. It was very helpful,” said Alicia, adding that because of AAAPS and the connections the program helped her to make she now has a clear vision of what her future could hold.
“Once I graduate I hope to continue on to law school and focus on Indigenous law, possibly to do with land claims,” she said. “I connected with the Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative at Dal last term. That was great too. I could see the rest of my academic life a little bit planned out. When I told them I wanted to be a lawyer, they took it to mean that was going to happen. So that was encouraging.”
Carrie’s excitement about the program is evident as she describes a recent session the AAAPS students took part in with Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaw educator from Cape Breton’s Potlotek First Nation. “She’s really one of the biggest names in Indigenous education internationally and the students had such perceptive questions for her. There were about 40 MSVU colleagues and students participating at a distance via Zoom, but the AAAPS students were in the classroom and their energy was palpable. The conversation was totally thrilling and it was just so exciting to watch them see their potential reflected back at them.”
Adds Carrie, “Every time I walk through the doors of the Friendship Centre, I feel challenged to make MSVU more accessible and more inclusive and to respect and incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing, and that’s a really exciting challenge,” she said. “I feel mobilized and invigorated by it.”
Those interested in learning more about the program can call (902) 420-1576 and ask to speak with Brittany, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.