Professional Profiles

SFU program launches student's dream

July 12, 2013
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By Marelle Reid, The Record

A year ago, Janelle Dobson-Kocsis was dreaming of a career helping Aboriginal people struggling with mental health issues but had no idea how to get started.

The New Westminster resident had applied to the Douglas College psychiatric nursing program right after high school seven years ago but wasn't accepted because her math marks were too low.

However, after years of feeling trapped in low-paying restaurant jobs and care-aid positions that weren't challenging, she discovered a program at Simon Fraser University tailored to help Aboriginal high school grads and mature students get into post-secondary health sciences studies.

The Aboriginal Pre-Health Program (APH) is what Dobson-Kocsis, a New Westminster resident and member of the Kwanlin Dun Band, credits with getting her on track for her dream job.

"If I didn't take the APH program, I'd either be struggling with an adult learning centre math course or I would have tried to take one and dropped out of it," she says.

According to Natalie Wood-Wiens, indigenous programs coordinator at SFU, only eight per cent of Aboriginal adults between ages 25 and 65 in Canada have a post-secondary degree, compared with the 23 per cent of non-Aboriginal adults, as per the 2006 census data.

Having a program like this at SFU is a leg up that is sorely needed for aspiring Aboriginal health-care workers, she said.

"A significant number of health professionals in varying capacities are needed in Aboriginal communities," she wrote in an email to the NOW. "Educational institutions, in partnership with Aboriginal communities and organizations, can play a key role in building this capacity through the development of appropriate and relevant programs such as the SFU Aboriginal Pre-Health Bridge Program."

The two-semester program, started in 2009, offers academic and studies skills courses that serve to enhance students' academic standing to help them gain entry into post-secondary programs.

So far, 19 students have completed this program, which covers study skills, cultural studies focusing on Canadian Aboriginal people, and math.

For Dobson-Kocsis, this was exactly what she needed.

"What I wanted was that math, but I got a whole bunch of stuff on top of that, and then other opportunities came out of it," she says. "It was everything I wanted and then some."

This spring Dobson-Kocsis finished the two-semester program with flying colours, as well as newfound confidence in her math skills—even volunteering this year as a math teacher—and got a summer job working in the SFU Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction.

The math position was through the Math Catcher program at SFU, which instructs Aboriginal youth around the province using culturally relevant stories, pictures and objects to explain math concepts and formulas.

Dobson-Kocsis found her way into the summer research position through SFU's Training of Aboriginal Youth in Biomedical Labs (TAYBL) Program, which mentors graduates from the pre-health program in preparation for health-related careers.

Dobson-Kocsis is now working with health sciences professor Elliot Goldner, who says having her in his lab has been mutually beneficial.

"This is the first TAYBL student I have worked with, and it has been a great experience," he wrote in a press release. "I have sought to provide learning opportunities that match Janelle's interests, and she is making a valuable contribution to our research and teaching activities."

This spring, Dobson-Kocsis was accepted into both the Douglas College psychiatric nursing degree program, as well as the SFU bachelor of arts in psychology program.

She chose the Douglas College program, which she will begin in September, and then she intends to pursue a master's in health sciences at SFU.

"Janelle has an enormously bright future ahead of her," said Wood-Wiens. "Her dedication, perseverance and commitment is truly inspirational, and we are honoured to have been part of her journey in the pre-health program. We look forward to her return to SFU graduate studies."

Having a clinical degree will also give Dobson-Kocsis hands-on experience in a hospital setting, which she says will be an important part of building her skill set in her chosen field.

Knowing how many opportunities are made available through the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program at SFU, Dobson-Kocsis says she would encourage anyone interested in health sciences to consider applying.

"When it comes to programs like Math Catcher, TAYBL and the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program, I think Aboriginal people should pursue them," she says. "Try them, and if it's not for you, at least you tried something."

For more information about the Aboriginal Pre-Health Program at Simon Fraser University, visit www.sfu.ca/continuing-studies.html

This story first appeared in The Record on July 12, 2013.

On her way: Janelle Dobson-Kocsis recently completed the Aboriginal Pre-Health program at Simon Fraser University and will begin her studies in psychiatric nursing this fall at Douglas College. Photograph by Larry Wright, The Record

June 2016 Update

Janelle has now graduated with her diploma in psychiatric nursing and will soon fulfill her dream of helping Aboriginal people with mental health issues. She recently gave the keynote speech at the Tla'amin Nation Celebration of Success. Read the full story on the Math Catcher website