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Free tutoring program uses Indigenous knowledge to prepare students for university
By Casey McCarthy
For Todd Nelson (BSc, Hons., 2022), Simon Fraser University (SFU) provided a conduit to learn about his values as an Indigenous person. “I’m Spuzzum and mixed European on my dad’s side and Korean on my mom’s side,” says Nelson. “I grew up in Saudi Arabia and returned to Canada in grade 11. When I started university, I really became interested in exploring my identity and family connections.” Around his time, Nelson also discovered the power of tutoring. “I wanted to benefit my community through a reciprocal relationship,” says Nelson. "I landed on free tutoring as a way to take action towards reconciliation by helping Indigenous children to attain their education.” While a student at SFU, Nelson made this idea a reality by launching the Indigenous Tutoring & Mentoring Program (ITMP) in 2021.
In his final year as a Behavioural Neuroscience major, Nelson enrolled in an Indigenous Studies course, both for personal enrichment and to help shape ITMP. “The introductory course, INDG 101, is incredibly valuable; it taught me how I can interact with the community and act in good ways,” says Nelson. “Without this course, I would have been lost, especially going back to the reserve. My professor, Kicya7 Joyce Schneider, provided the alphabet for me to be able to speak to my people.” In his Indigenous Studies course, Nelson found a supportive space to reflect and ask questions. “In my delivery of INDG 101, students work with the Medicine Wheel pedagogy gifted by Cree Elder Michael Thrasher to consider ways in which they can respectfully mobilize one call to action in their lives,” explains Indigenous Studies assistant professor Kicya7 Joyce Schneider. “In Nelson's term paper assignment, he recognized that closing the gaps in First Peoples' educations and employment requires much more than completing programs in colonizing institutions. He works to ensure that all tutors and mentors in the ITMP are aware of and supporting the aspirations, ways of being, doing, knowing, and values of the Indigenous students, their families, and communities.” Inspired by his learning, with the help of Schneider, Nelson has introduced Indigenous cultural safety training for all of ITMP’s mentors and tutors.
Since launching ITMP, Nelson has turned to Indigenous educators for advice on facilitating positive experiences for Indigenous students. To reach students in his Nation of Spuzzum, Nelson has worked closely with Rod Peters, the past Indigenous coordinator for School District 78. Collaborators from the SFU community have also made significant contributions to ITMP, including Kevin Lam, a faculty member in Biology, Jessica Seemann, Basil Giannopoulos, and Shay Denis, who all joined while attending SFU together.
To pursue his interest in teaching, Nelson enrolled in SFU’s Professional Development Program (PDP) in Fall 2022. In February 2023, he organized a field trip to SFU’s Burnaby campus for ITMP’s students. “It’s important for Indigenous students to see the resources available on campus and meet allies who want to see them succeed,” says Nelson. Introducing students to Indigenous Studies as a potential major or minor was also on the field trip’s itinerary. “When Nelson and Kevin asked me to Indigenize the volunteers' training session and provide a mock Indigenous Studies lecture for high school students visiting SFU, I happily agreed because this work of reconciling all aspects of this institution is important work and we need to support each other whenever we can,” says Kicya7 Joyce Schneider.
As ITMP grows, Nelson hopes to see a new generation of Indigenous university students thriving, “I would love to see our current ITMP students become the future tutors.” ITMP is run by a dedicated team of volunteers, many of whom are SFU students and alumni. “We are always looking for new volunteers in a variety of roles,” says Nelson. “Although our tutoring sessions are virtual, we value Indigenous volunteers who know the communities.” Potential volunteers should visit www.itmp.ca to learn more.