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Aboriginal University Prep Program expands

February 16, 2015
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Students in the Aboriginal University Prep Program receive support that affirms and integrates Indigenous perspectives. Aboriginal Elders provide encouragement, and tutors give subject-specific guidance.

By Diane Luckow
Source: Aboriginal Peoples supplement, SFU News 

For Natalie Wood-Wiens, founding and growing the Aboriginal University Prep Program and co-founding the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program have been a dream come true.

Wood-Wiens, who is Métis/Cree from Manitoba, is the coordinator of Indigenous Programs in SFU Continuing Studies’ Leadership and Community Building Programs.

She grew up in a small rural community and enrolled at the University of Winnipeg straight out of high school, so she understands how difficult the transition to university can be for Aboriginal students.

That’s why nine years ago, while working as a contract instructor with SFU Continuing Studies, she approached the dean with an idea for a university-bridging program for Aboriginal students.

“At the time, it was well documented that Aboriginal enrollment in universities was very low,” says Wood-Wiens. “I felt that a bridging program was essential if we were going to increase participation.”

With the dean’s approval and seed funding, Wood-Wiens established the Aboriginal University Prep Program in 2007. Offered at the Surrey campus, the two-semester program accepts up to 18 students for each program cohort. Students who complete the program earn conditional acceptance into SFU and academic credit towards a degree program.

Students range in age from 18 to their mid-40s. They have varying academic backgrounds, and come from the Lower Mainland as well as elsewhere in B.C. and, this year, as far away as Nova Scotia and Labrador.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve worked more closely with SFU Indigenous Recruitment and as a result, we’ve noticed more Aboriginal high school students applying to the program directly out of high school,” says Wood-Wiens.

She is particularly proud of the program’s growing reputation in the Aboriginal community, in part a result of the university’s commitment to offer the program every year.

Since receiving official bridge status in 2010, which grants students conditional acceptance to SFU, the program has prepared 45 students for the transition to university. Most have enrolled at SFU.

Wood-Wiens expects to see some of the program’s first students graduate with an SFU degree in 2016–2017.

“As they walk across the convocation dais, I’ll be feeling elated and extremely proud of their achievements—and honored to have been a part of their educational journey.”

Aboriginal University Prep introduces enhancements

Last fall, the Aboriginal University Prep Program increased its duration from one to two semesters in a bid to ensure students are as well-prepared for university as possible.

The change included two new writing-intensive courses, which students had recommended during exit surveys. These courses were made possible with support from the program’s advisory committee and faculty partners.

“One of the courses, Explorations in the Arts and Social Sciences, which we’re offering this spring, has Indigenous content embedded throughout,” says Wood-Wiens.

Deanna Reder, a professor in the departments of English and First Nations Studies, revised the course curriculum with assistance from student Gabrielle Hill.

The course now includes Indigenous and non-Indigenous texts and works by Indigenous scholars, authors and filmmakers such as Marilyn Dumont, Jo-Ann Episkenew, Jean Barman, Eden Robinson and Richard Van Camp.

There are also plans to embed content from Indigenous authors into a general SFU humanities course, Introduction to the Humanities, which is also taught in the program.

Also new last semester: Aboriginal University Prep and Aboriginal Pre-Health students participated as a cohort in a mainstream First Nations Studies (FNST) undergraduate course at the Burnaby campus.

“It was a perfect opportunity for our students to experience an undergraduate class—participating in lectures and experiencing the Burnaby campus,” says Wood-Wiens. “Both The Indigenous Student Centre and the FNST department played a key role in supporting and welcoming Bridge students while they were on campus.”