More than 30 students are beginning their post-secondary journey this fall as the first official cohort in MacEwan University’s pimâcihisowin Foundation Program.
pimâcihisowin, which means “to create a life of independence” in Cree, is designed to help Indigenous students bridge any gaps in meeting requirements for diploma or degree programs. But the program isn’t simply about meeting academic prerequisites.
Terri Suntjens, kâ-nêkânêstahk iyiniw pamihtamowina – director of Indigenous initiatives at MacEwan, says pimâcihisowin was created to blend services that support student success; courses that explore the history of Indigenous peoples, culture, language and ceremony; and opportunities to build relationships and find community.
“My hope is to see Indigenous students entering degree programs with the tools needed to succeed in a Western institution, while maintaining a strong connection to who they are as Indigenous peoples,” says Terri. “It’s crucial for Indigenous students to see themselves reflected here, to know there is a safe space on campus for them, and to have opportunities to engage in Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing.”
Students in the pimâcihisowin Foundation Program work with an advisor from the university’s kihêw waciston Indigenous Centre to create their own educational plan tailored to help them gain admission to the program of their choice. Part of that plan includes two required courses – pimâcihisowin 100, which was piloted during Winter 2019 and Indigenous 101, which will be offered for the first time in Winter 2020.
Kelsey Reed, faculty member in the Bachelor of Child and Youth Care program, taught the pimâcihisowin 100 course in Winter 2019. Kelsey and kihêw waciston advisor Krista Hanscomb, along with the pilot course’s eight students, focused on academic preparation skills and how to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing into the university experience.
“We took a very holistic approach, often abandoning the eurocentric need to have a very structured and controlled environment,” says Kelsey. “In letting go of that, we were able to incorporate sharing circles and ceremony into the course, and created spaces for people to really be themselves.”
The teaching, says Kelsey, was 100 per cent relational. As they covered the history of Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada, they also worked through academic — and sometimes personal — issues.
“I loved that this course allowed us to work with students in a way that reflected all aspects of their lives,” says Kelsey. “It was about meeting students where they were at and really trying to work through any of the barriers that might stop them from continuing their studies.”
Several students in the pimâcihisowin 100 course pilot in Winter 2019 took part in the maskêkosihk’, Enoch Cree Nation, Spring Cultural Camp.
Kelsey, who will teach the course again in the Fall term, hopes her students leave her class clearly knowing who they are and that being a university student doesn’t mean they need to abandon their Indigenous ways of knowing and being.
“I want them to understand and take pride in the idea that Indigenous knowledge has value and a part to play in how we navigate this system as Indigenous people,” she says.
Jessica Minoza, a student in the pilot course, says that while she walked into the class not knowing exactly what to expect, she walked out with a stronger understanding of her culture and herself.
“I’m a mature student and I wanted to go back to school to further my education, to find my voice and to figure out my identity as an Indigenous woman,” she says. “Oftentimes I found myself in situations where I knew in my heart there was injustice but would stumble over my words, unable to articulate what I was thinking and feeling. From the very first day, the course allowed me to learn about where my people come from, to be accountable for who I am and to be proud as an Indigenous person. Now I wear my culture with pride and have the tools I need to speak my mind.”
But it wasn’t always easy. “Sometimes it was difficult and eye-opening to hear the history, but that was what I was looking for,” says Jessica, who wants to study social work. “I come from a small community of about 600 people in the Northwest Territories and I’ve seen a lot of difficult things. I’ve seen a lot of damage. I want to help.”
Even so, she says she doesn’t think she would have been able to get through the first few months of university without this course.
“It can be very isolating and hard to find people you connect with,” says Jessica. “But there was a sense of belonging, of community in our course. I can only speak for myself, but it seemed like a class we all needed to get through our studies.”
Helping students get through the difficult times that often come at the beginning of their university experience, and helping them see a path to the future, is exactly what pimâcihisowin is about.
“There are a lot of students who don’t continue after their first year,” says Kelsey. “But if we can help students work through all the minor and major hurdles along the way, they have the agency they need to keep going.”
We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.