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U of C to increase Aboriginal student enrolment

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Last month, University of Calgary provost and vice-president academic Dru Marshall announced new strategies for increasing Aboriginal students' enrolment at the U of C.

"The Aboriginal recruitment and enrolment strategy will be a cross-cutting initiative, and will be set across campus," said Marshall.

Marshall is planning campus consultation on this issue next year, talking to students and professors to gather ideas about how to accomplish this goal.

"Part of this is how we connect to Calgary and how we connect with our Aboriginal community," said Marshall. "We are not only looking at our teaching and learning environment but a re-focus on research and the connection we have to the community."

Fifth-year science, applied math and anthropology Aboriginal student Tessa Bailey is optimistic about the ongoing policy changes.

"I think it's a good initiative because there are not a lot of Aboriginals in our school. [The Aboriginal population] is quite low, compared to other universities," said Bailey.

In 2011, the University of Alberta had over 900 Aboriginal students, more than double the number enrolled at the U of C.

Marshall previously worked in the University of Alberta administration for 32 years before joining the U of C as provost in Aug. 2011.

Marshall said since the U of A is a more "mature university, their programs are move evolved." The U of A also has well-developed Aboriginal programs, Aboriginal advisors and an effective advisory council that is comprised of elders, band leaders, students and teaching staff. The Aboriginal council at the U of A provides Aboriginal sensitivity training and incorporates Aboriginal feather ceremonies in the grand and formal university ceremonies.

U of C Aboriginal professor Ramona Beatty said the U of C has an advisory council board that focuses on Aboriginal students regarding enrolment and support services, but lacks resources for curriculum development.

"I feel that this is left out," said Beatty. "The indigenous studies program should be reflective of the mandate to complete a degree in four years, so I think the necessary core courses in the indigenous studies arts degree should be offered in a timely manner."

Beatty added that the previous 10 international indigenous studies courses were reduced to eight as part of an administration budget cut. She also notes higher-level classes with low enrolment often end up being cut.

"I have to have 25 students enrolled in the course I am teaching this summer. If I don't have 25 students, the course won't run," she said. "So far, we're very successful in the introductory classes, but to do justice to the more advanced classes, we need to promote indigenous studies and indigenous ways of knowing to more students."

At the moment, the indigenous studies program is often run by contract teachers, instead of tenured staff. The program's director Jim Frideres, retired last year, and now the indigenous program is overseen by arts associate dean David Maher. Maher is also in charge of all the other art interdisciplinary programs, such as development studies and law and society.

"Support for indigenous studies and knowledge is really needed. This will exemplify the acceptance [of the Aboriginal culture] by the university and subsequently, students. There should be the willingness to support indigenous knowledge, and the realization that there is a unique quality in indigenous alternative views," said Beatty.

Marshall has engaged in several talks with the staff at the Native Centre.

"They know I have previous experience in my job at the U of A. They are excited about the Aboriginal strategy. I have to engage with them more and get their perspective to see what they think it should look like," said Marshall. "They are the ones with the local knowledge and contacts, and they will be the ones who will help me manage out in the community."

With the proximity of the First Nations to Calgary, Marshall is determined to work closely with them and learn more about the culture, especially in the southern part of the province.

For Bailey, coming to the U of C was a big transition, but her previous experience studying at Yukon College helped her.

"I think that made it easier for me to enrol into the U of C," she said. "For a lot of Aboriginal people, their path is a little different and a lot of them drop out when they're younger. The Aboriginal Student Access Program helps."

ASAP is a transition program developed by the Native Centre for Aboriginal students. It offers programs like upgrading classes, tutorials and advising to aid students before they enrol at the U of C.

Beatty is the head of the ASAP program.

"There are many complex individuals with different needs. To have such services available and to have people who understand your culture and the indigenous philosophy helps reduce the stress [of applying and transitioning]," said Beatty.

Marshall has taken note of addressing the enrolment process relative to the culture sensitivity on campus.

"[We are] looking at our overall enrolment and trying to figure out why we might privilege one group over another, relative to enrolment and programs," said Marshall. "This will be a challenge for me. Understanding the cultural significance of Aboriginal culture in Calgary, the diversity of the community and making sure we are meeting the needs of groups."

Currently, the Aboriginal Student Admissions Policy ensures "equitable access for Aboriginal students to undergraduate degree programs" at the U of C. Applicants must meet the minimum admission requirements, the English language proficiency requirement and be Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada. Even then, this open policy does not guarantee enrolment for Aboriginal students to the university.

While Bailey is content with the current policies in place and the amount of support provided for the Aboriginal community, she sees room for improvement.

"I hope there will be more support services. But I find that as I'm going up the years, I am doing much better because the class sizes are smaller and I get to know my teachers."

Marshall acknowledges that improvements need to be done and that exciting prospects await the school and the Aboriginal population.

"We will be looking at [improvements] a few years down the road. Right now, we have to crawl before we can walk and run."

Beatty said more work needs to be done to encourage cross-disciplinary partnerships between the international indigenous studies program and other university degree programs.

"Students should be able to cross reference classes -- applying knowledge in one class to another," she said.

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