Indigenous Students Embrace Success in EleV Partnership

Criminology student Mandii Hopkins with her sons Reginald, left, and Kenny.

October 17, 2018 - 12:45pm

By Jenn McGarrigle


Last fall, VIU became part of EleV, a new collaboration with the Mastercard Foundation, the Rideau Hall Foundation, Yukon College and Indigenous communities. The first of its kind in Canada, this learning partnership aims to better support Indigenous learners in their post-secondary educational journeys and beyond by removing barriers and providing wrap-around support services. Students and staff share their thoughts so far. 


With two young sons to support, going back to school seemed a distant dream for Mandii Hopkins. The 26-year-old single mother of two wanted to go back to school for years, but raising her two boys had taken all of her resources. She tears up when she talks about finding a way to get the education she so desperately wants, not only to build a better life for her and her children, but also to raise up others in her community. 

“For me, this program is the light at the end of the tunnel – there’s no way I would be in school right now without it,” says Hopkins, a Criminology student who hopes to go to law school after she finishes her degree so she can become an advocate for people in her community. “I just want to show myself and those who believe in me that I can do this, and show my sons that they can do it too – we can take that step forward to get ahead.”

Hopkins, whose mother is from Mowachaht Muchalaht First Nation in Gold River, is one of more than 80 Indigenous students at Vancouver Island University who are benefitting from a unique new learning partnership for Indigenous youth called EleV that aims to remove barriers to accessing and succeeding at post-secondary. Supported by the Mastercard Foundation and Rideau Hall Foundation, VIU and Yukon College were chosen to start the new program. 

EleV includes a scholarship program to increase the number of Indigenous youth attending VIU by 250 as well as supports to help students navigate university and transition into the work force afterwards. What makes the program unique is that it is being co-created with the Indigenous communities the University serves, whose input shapes what supports are delivered and how. This means the program is delivered differently at VIU than it is at Yukon College.


Navigating Post-Secondary

Key to the program’s wrap-around supports at VIU are the Indigenous Education Navigators, who work on campuses and in communities to help youth access the supports they need to start or continue along their journey at VIU.

For Hopkins, having that extra support has made all the difference. Hopkins had her first son when she was 18 – before she had the chance to complete high school. The road back to education – she finished her high school in VIU’s Adult Basic Education program – has been a terrifying one as she tries to ensure her sons are not negatively impacted in any way.

The scholarship covers tuition, books and living expenses, but one month an electronic glitch set her behind on her rent. Education Navigator Emmy Manson made some calls and figured out a way to get the money sent through email transfer so Hopkins could pay her landlord.

“Without her I would have felt so alone, it would have been too intimidating to try to come back,” says Hopkins. “Emmy has helped me through everything – what I need to fill out, who I need to talk to for different things. She’s gone above and beyond to get me to where I need to be. Whenever I lose my strength, she is there to lend me some of hers.”


Breaking New Ground

The Indigenous Education Navigators support students from when they are still in the K-12 system – as well as youth who have disengaged from the education system – through to when they graduate from VIU, walking with them to ensure they are successful in their journeys. For Manson, a VIU alum herself, this means driving students to court dates, having coffee with them, checking in via Snapchat, and celebrating their successes with them.

“It’s been a journey of getting them to view us as a resource, but also to teach them to become advocates for themselves,” she says. “We hold them up and we mentor them. Many of my family members went through residential school and the impacts of colonization run deep. For me, education has been a tool to build me up and create opportunities for me that I might never have had. We’re reclaiming education.”

The journey has not always been smooth. Tasha Brooks, Education Navigator for the Cowichan Valley region, says explaining the opportunity to some communities has been difficult. 

“A strong focus of EleV is on relationship building and trust building with our partners. The intention is that the program is co-created between VIU and our First Nations partners, and for the co-creation model to work, strong relationships need to be in place,” she says. 

Part of the challenge is that the program is so new and nothing like it has ever been done before, explains Rob Mahikwa, a Navigator at the Nanaimo Campus. 

“We are going out and blazing this new trail, which is part of the excitement for me,” he says. “We’re experimenting as we go. Fortunately, that allows a lot of room for student and community feedback.”

Sherry Mattice, Navigator for the Powell River region, says spending time in communities makes all the difference. 

“When I went to Bella Bella, someone threw a party for me and many community members came and talked to me about their educational experiences,” she says. “The teachers were excited that I was there in person. It’s so important because the students I help live in remote communities and coming to VIU might be the first time they’ve left their communities.”

The first year of implementing EleV was intense and challenging for Dr. Sharon Hobenshield, VIU’s Director of Aboriginal Education and Engagement. Most of the programs her office receives funding for are already developed and have a clear set of deliverables, whereas EleV was created from the ground up by VIU and partners. Many of the students are first-generation learners who don’t have someone talking to them about post-secondary and their experiences, which makes taking that step a lot scarier for many, she adds.

“What we are hearing and observing from students in the program is gratitude for the support as well as identification of the everyday challenges that impact their abilities to persist in their educational programs,” says Hobenshield. “As we transition into year two, I am looking forward to developing further supports to alleviate these everyday stressors, such as getting kids to daycare and knowing how to talk to instructors to clarify assignments. We have excellent resources at VIU and in the community – the vision is to be more purposeful in our collaborations, which the program is allowing us to do. VIU continually strives to be a place where we can give Indigenous learners a voice and an opportunity.”


New Beginnings

Jen White feels like she’s been given a second chance at achieving her dreams. 

Two years ago, the Snuneymuxw First Nation member hit rock bottom. Pregnant with her youngest daughter and addicted to drugs, she was caught stealing to support her habit and ended up in jail after missing court dates and breaching probation conditions. 

“I felt so lost, broken and hopeless, sitting there in that jail cell,” says White. “I was thinking about what I was going to do differently when this baby came into the world. I knew I had to put down the drugs for her.”

After seeking treatment, White turned her mind to education. She had initially enrolled at VIU right out of high school, but put her dreams on hold to support her children. Now that she’s back, with the help of a scholarship through EleV, she has very specific goals she wants to achieve. White hopes to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Child and Youth Care, and then enter a career helping women fleeing violent situations. 

“Being here has been amazing,” she says. “It seems unreal that I’m actually doing this and my dream is coming true. There are many different support systems on campus, and everyone has been willing to reach out and go above and beyond to help. Emmy hosted a dinner with the scholarship students and many of us ended up in the same classes. We're also dealing with many of the same issues like addiction. We are helping each other along the way.”

White hopes that her journey will in turn inspire her children, two of whom are now in high school. 

“My hope is for all five of my children to aspire to continue with their education and use it to become whatever they choose to be,” she adds.


Sidebar: Birth of the Partnership

While Indigenous youth make up the fastest-growing demographic in Canada, their transition rates to post-secondary fall below those of other Canadians. Inspired by the work the Mastercard Foundation has been doing in Africa to help young people find a pathway out of poverty through meaningful employment, the Rideau Hall Foundation partnered with the Mastercard Foundation to co-host two events in 2016 that brought together national Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders, education experts and youth to discuss a national project that would support Indigenous youth in their aspirations. The ultimate goal was to improve outcomes for these learners. The ideas discussed and developed at these sessions gave birth to EleV. 

“Education offers great potential for all of us to open pathways to reconciliation,” says Teresa Marques, President and CEO of the Rideau Hall Foundation. “This work cannot be done in isolation, and we are partnering with institutions and Indigenous communities to model a co-creation process that allows everyone to benefit. Success comes in many shapes and sizes, from the student who gains self-confidence through a network of support, to the pride Elders feel as the youth in their communities stand tall as learners.” 

VIU was chosen as one of the institutions to pilot this new way of engaging Indigenous youth in post-secondary education because of the rich relationships the institution has already built with the Indigenous communities it serves, says Reeta Roy, President and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation. 

“What we found in VIU and in their partnerships with First Nations, nurtured with such care and respect, is a rich opportunity to learn,” she says. “Reconciliation is a complex challenge and the need for action is great. Through deepening and broadening collaborative partnerships,  we believe the potential of Indigenous youth to lead the way forward is even greater. We are inspired and optimistic about supporting educational outcomes that are truly meaningful for Indigenous youth and their communities.”


Sidebar: EleV Explanation

EleV reflects a lesson of nature – that leadership is service; that by helping others, we fulfil a greater purpose. EleV uplifts Indigenous students, embracing learning and leadership. By encouraging students to fly higher through education, EleV creates the opportunity for young people to prosper and contribute to their communities.

The program and the students involved share a commitment to an unselfish act of leadership. The program exists to assist Indigenous students. The students participate to help create better lives for their families and communities. They may (in some cases) leave their communities to study, but unfailingly return to support others.

It reminds us of the migratory patterns of geese/ducks, where each member takes a turn in leading the “vee” formation. It’s an act of extreme unselfishness – taking their turn at the hardest job to help uplift others travelling alongside them. It’s not about control or dominance; it is doing their part to help others.

Sidebar: New Tuition Approach for Peoples with Ancestral Lands in Canada

VIU will recognize any Indigenous peoples living outside Canada with ancestral lands in Canada as domestic students rather than international students.

Under this new tuition approach, Indigenous students with this ancestral connection will no longer be subject to an “international” tuition classification, but will be granted recognition as members of Indigenous nations and be eligible for the lower domestic tuition rate. 

“VIU is committed to being a catalyst, through steps such as this, in moving the process of reconciliation forward,” explains Makenzie Leine, Chair of VIU’s Board of Governors. “It is important that universities provide access to education for Indigenous peoples by reaching out and building pathways to success for Indigenous youth and their communities.”

*This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of VIU Magazine. Check out more stories on the VIU Magazine webpage.

Tags: Indigenous | Reconciliation | VIU Magazine

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