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Mentorship project inspires Aboriginal students

Reanne Percival began a bachelor of science at SFU after completing the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program.
September 23, 2013
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By Amy Robertson

A mentorship project at SFU has helped a group of Aboriginal students prepare to pursue careers in health science.

In November 2012, SFU Continuing Studies' Aboriginal Pre-Health Program participated in the university’s first Aboriginal Health Mentorship Project, which paired interested students with Aboriginal health professionals and elders. For six months, they worked together to develop health-related research projects that the students presented at a public forum in March 2013.

“The project was designed to support Aboriginal pre-health students and help them explore some of the challenges of combining culturally traditional practices with mainstream healthcare approaches,” says Shanthi Besso, the program coordinator in charge of the mentorship project. 

“By creating these structured mentorships, we were able to increase cultural guidance and encouragement and give students access to practical health career information and networks.”

St. Paul’s Hospital nurse mentors Aboriginal student

One project participant was Reanne Percival, a young Nisga’a woman from New Aiyansh Village, B.C. A nurse who works with HIV/AIDS patients at St. Paul’s Hospital served as the young woman’s mentor. The relationship fit, says Percival, because she was interested in doing her research project on sexual health among Aboriginal youth.

Her mentor provided some resources, suggested some research techniques, and gave Percival a tour at St. Paul’s, during which she met some people who had been affected by HIV.

“It helped me realize that Natives and non-Aboriginals aren’t really that different,” she says. “We struggle with the same health issues. The difference is in how they got there.”

Conversations with her family, including her grandmother, a residential-school survivor, helped turn Percival’s attention to the history of Aboriginal sexual health.

“Aboriginal youth need to have a different approach to sexual health because of their pasts,” she says, explaining that colonization and experiences at residential schools have had an effect on Aboriginal health.

Because of her history, she explains, her grandmother was unable to talk to her mother about safe sex.

“I think we need to get Aboriginal people more involved in their culture and make them proud of themselves…the more we help educate the parents about abstinence and safe sex, it will help with the ripple effect.”

Aboriginal student inspired to study at SFU

Before participating in the mentorship project, Percival was unsure whether she would pursue nursing or medicine after graduation—but her research project inspired her.

She’s decided that she wants to become an obstetrician/gynecologist and then go back to her community to help with family health—and SFU will be part of her journey forward. Percival began a bachelor of science in health sciences at SFU in the fall of 2013.

Read about two of the Aboriginal Mentorship Project's mentors in a related story: Aboriginal mentors eager to work with students