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Trailblazer: New program invests in Aboriginal scholars
Posted Monday, November 28, 2011 10:29 AM
 
NEWS
 
Sherry Peden is the first person in her family with a PhD. In fall 2011, the Aboriginal scholar was also the first to graduate through a special program designed to support Aboriginal scholars pursuing doctoral studies at the U of M.

Fittingly perhaps, Peden’s doctorate is in Education with areas of focus in teacher education — in particular, teacher education to better meet the needs of the growing First Nations-Metis-Inuit (FNMI) student population — critical race theory in education, and educational administration, also with a focus on FNMI inclusion.

Pursuing the advanced degree was something she had considered but believed unattainable.
“As an Aboriginal person,” she said, “I simply did not have anyone in my family or inner circle of friends who had taken PhD studies and therefore had no one to guide or encourage me. It is not a unique situation because of how education has played out for Aboriginal people in Canada.”

Then she met U of M PhD Studies for Aboriginal Scholars (PSAS) coordinator, Deo Poonwassie, who was travelling the province to promote the program. He was seeking potential PSAS candidates who could meet admission criteria for their chosen programs and had the desire and ability to pursue studies.

At the time, she was so immersed in work demands that she had given minimal consideration to pursuing PhD studies. After speaking with Poonwassie about the program, the possibilities were clear. Her interest was piqued.

The non-academic program provides functional, navigational, bureaucratic, advisory and financial support of up to $20,000 per year to assist in covering expenses for tuition, books and materials and some living expenses. Non-degree courses meet student needs such as writing academic papers and proposal writing.

Students meet at least three times per year to share their research, experiences and to make suggestions to the advisory council for policy formation. Students also meet with each other to solve problems and provide support for each other.


Growing Aboriginal scholarship, growing Aborginal scholars

According to coordinator Poonwassie, who is also a founder and organizer of the program, the PSAS is part of a significant effort towards creating equity for Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and he is proud that the U of M boasts one of the only programs of this kind.

So how did it come about? In the fall of 2006, he sat down for breakfast with Verna Kirkness, a Cree scholar. The conversation drifted to the newly established University College of the North (UCN); they were having difficulty recruiting suitable staff for that institution.

The two discussed current university programs for training Aboriginal students for the workforce; all were undergraduate programs. Why not have a similar program to produce Aboriginal PhDs? they thought.

“We should grow our own,” said Kirkness.

Poonwassie immediately set to work on a first proposal draft and the two went to see then-president of the university Emoke Szathmary, who was delighted to hear the proposal and fully supported the idea. The first nine students began studies in the fall of 2007, and the program continues today with the full support of the current president and Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS), where the program is housed.

At first, recounts Poonwassie, the motivation was to provide staff for UCN. However, looking at Manitoba and Canada, it became clear that there is a huge imbalance in the representation of Aboriginals at universities both as faculty and students.

“This program,” he said, “can help graduates to become academic leaders and researchers across this land.”

Since Peden’s graduation from the program, the PSAS has 15 students continuing in various fields of study such as education, peace studies, Native studies, inter-disciplinary studies, social work, science and clinical psychology.

Though the PSAS program is not the only one at the U of M designed to facilitate Aboriginal scholars to pursue higher education, it is the only one with an exclusive focus on upper level degrees.

Funding for the program came from an anonymous donor, the U of M and the Manitoba Métis Federation for a total of $1-million. Some funding is for a period of three years while others are a one-time contribution. Some funding was also matched by the Province of Manitoba. Fellowships provided to students cannot meet the total cost for education and living expenses; the purpose of providing fellowships is to avoid undue hardships because of studies at the university.

The program has an advisory council made up of the dean of FGS, the director of accessibility, a representative from university funding, a representative from University College of the North (UCN), two community members and a part-time coordinator.

Increasing Aboriginal enrolment in graduate programs, especially PhD programs, is a priority of the Faculty of Graduate Studies,” says its dean, Jay Doering. “It is a challenge to which the faculty and the University of Manitoba are firmly committed.”


The need for the program

Prior to her PhD studies, Sherry Peden says she had “only a surface understanding of what it meant when scholars talked about de-colonization.

“Today I am far more committed to working towards systemic and policy change that will better meet the needs of FNMI students,” she said.

The program played a critical role in helping Peden complete her PhD.
But perhaps its most significant role, according to Peden, was the cohort of students it has created, with similar experience and goals.

“Being minority, and often times marginalized, people within educational settings, being all together changed our perspective,” she said. Meetings and non-credit educational workshops provided skills, knowledge and the motivation to navigate unfamiliar territory.

“I think that all of us in the initial cohort came to the PhD program as the first people in our families to have a master’s degree and then the first people to pursue PhD,” she said.

Peden’s experience was positive because there were many supports, academic, personal, institutional and financial, she noted. These allowed her to focus on study and the program needs in spite of working at the same time.

“My advisor, Dr. Dawn Wallin (Education), was so generous in terms of her time and commitment to guiding me to understand and complete my program. She is indeed a champion for us Aboriginal students,” she said.

“Dr. Poonwassie was also an incredible support because he would not only arrange meetings but would contact us individually by phone or email,” Peden added.

“This might seem insignificant, but for me PSAS meant that someone actually cared about how I was doing as a student.”
 
For more information, contact:
Mariianne Mays Wiebe
Editor, The Bulletin
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bulletin@umanitoba.ca
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