In a province with the highest per capita aboriginal population in Canada, the University of Saskatchewan has startlingly low aboriginal retention rates.
Since 2007, aboriginal enrolment has been hovering around eight per cent of the total student population — provincially aboriginal people make up 16 per cent of the population. Meanwhile, first- to second-year retention rates fluctuate between 55 and 65 per cent.
“Like most social phenomena, it is certainly not just one thing,” said Jared Brown, president of the Indigenous Students’ Council. “There’s a multitude of correlation that occurs for something to happen and this is not an anomaly when you keep that in mind.”
The main factors in the low retention rates are moving into an alien environment, lack of community and understanding, and adapting to a new educational setting.
Education is perhaps the most important of these factors. The change in education from rural communities, particularly reserves, to urban centres can be drastic. Provincial school systems, with their standardized curricula, are often more difficult and have higher performance expectations for students than schools on reserves.
“When you don’t have those educational standards established before you come here, it’s hard. It’s really hard,” said Brown.
However, “the further into a degree a student is able to progress, the less likely they are to not come back the following year,” said Alex Munoz, program manager for the Indigenous Peoples Program.
IPP, operating t hrough the Centre for Continuing and Distance Education, offers students and community members support to aid both aboriginal and non-aboriginal students with their education. They run aboriginal awareness and language programs, among others.
The culture shock of moving from a rural community to the city and the complete change in lifestyle that accompanies it is often the first struggle that students of any background face.
“You have to establish an understanding of how you fit into this little new world… where [you] feel good in the community and even outside of the campus community,” said Brown.
In April, IPP will run two new programs — Aboriginal Awareness Education and First Nation and Indigenous Knowledge through Song — to help generate support and interest.
IPP also runs workshops on topics such as how to enroll at the U of S and where people can find affordable housing in order to help prospective students and give them support and mentorship.
Potential students “don’t have the proper guidance, they feel frustrated, there are a lot of emotions going on [and] people tend to give up a lot of the time,” said Munoz.
Support and a sense of community on campus are key factors in retaining students. The ISC’s Role Model program is an example of creating relationships and communication amongst students and mentors.
“When we start creating dialogue, people get comfortable,” said Brown.
The ISC is not the only place on campus that creates communities for students to be comfortable and communicate on campus. They have combined efforts with the Aboriginal Student Centre, the Learning Communities and the Peer Assisted Learning program.
Aboriginal Achievement Week, which took place March 19-23, was about more than celebrating the excellence of students on campus; it also aimed to raise awareness and understanding of the aboriginal communities on campus.
Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf