Image Credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic
Image Credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic

Advancing economic and social prosperity

Sharon Ahenakew returned from an Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada conference in Winnipeg last year with a new challenge she wanted to tackle. As Sask Polytech's Aboriginal nursing student advisor, she attended the conference with two of her students. During a workshop, they met a nursing student from the Maritimes who shared some of the challenges she was facing in her program. The concerns included a perceived lack of support to self-identify as Aboriginal, a perceived fear of discrimination, Aboriginal health being taught from a deficit-based approach, and a perceived lack of faculty knowledge in Aboriginal history, culture and ways of knowing.

After the workshop wrapped up, Ahenakew spoke with her students from Sask Polytech. "They were saying that it was exactly the feelings that they were experiencing as well," she says.

"I did a briefing note for the deans and the associate dean to let them know that this is what the two students were feeling." She was then approached by her nursing colleague, Sharon Dixon, who suggested they establish a grassroots group to help address the students' concerns. Together, they created the Kindred Spirits for Indigenization group, which now has more than 30 interprofessional members who have been meeting monthly since last fall.

"The group is [made up of] students and people who work in the front line with students directly," she says. "They are coming together to talk about some of the ways that are working and some of the ways that aren't, in terms of creating an environment, in an institution, that is culturally appropriate and culturally sensitive, to and for the Aboriginal students we serve."

Kindred Spirits is a working group under the Aboriginal Student Achievement Plan (ASAP) steering committee. Established in 2008, ASAP is an institution-wide strategy to increase Aboriginal student success. The ultimate goal is to help Aboriginal students succeed at the same rate as non-Aboriginal students. Through ASAP, Aboriginal students can engage with Aboriginal advisors and Elders, relax and study in Aboriginal Activity Centres and attend social and cultural events. Ahenakew sits on the ASAP steering committee, providing a direct line of communication and support between ASAP and Kindred Spirits.

From the larger Kindred Spirits group, a smaller research group formed. The group's pilot research project is a small-scale study involving nursing students in Saskatoon.

"One of the reasons we picked this research project was because we heard through the grapevine that there are students who still do not feel comfortable self-identifying," says Ahenakew. "We want to know why that is, because of course that's what one of the students expressed concerns about from the beginning. One of the main purposes is to, firstly, find out why they're not self-identifying, and secondly, what, as an institution, could we do to support that."

Although they're currently awaiting ethics approval on the research project, they're moving ahead with other initiatives. "We're bringing in Dr. Shauneen Pete, who is indigenization lead at the University of Regina, to explain and bring awareness of what indigenization is." Kindred Spirits is hosting the internal event on November 20. It will be delivered by video conference to all campuses.

Ahenakew sees a clear link between the work of the Kindred Spirits group and Sask Polytech's second strategic theme. "It all has to do with Aboriginal student success, from my perspective; because if we can support the students, not only academically, but culturally as well, then I feel they're more likely to succeed. If they succeed, then it benefits the economic and social prosperity of the province."

This is the third instalment of a four-part series highlighting Saskatchewan Polytechnic employees who are demonstrating excellence in delivering on one of our four strategic themes: 1. Making successful careers possible, 2. Advancing economic and social prosperity, 3. Pursuing excellence in program quality and innovation, and 4. Leading organizational effectiveness.

As Saskatchewan's only polytechnic school, Saskatchewan Polytechnic is uniquely positioned to make significant contributions to the province's economic and social prosperity. Sask Polytech advances strategic partnerships and alliances with industry, other educational institutions and government to benefit its clients.