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Meeting Student Needs Holistically

Marti Ford, Dean of Aboriginal Education for Red River CollegeFor 12 years now, Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has not only offered an Aboriginal division but it has been one of the few post-secondary institutions to actually have a dean of Aboriginal education.

As a progressive initiative born from a consultative process, the creation of a dean position was ground-breaking in its day.

“In the early 1990s, the college met with community members and First Nations communities to ask what they could do to support Aboriginal students and one of the findings that came out of the forums was to have a dean of Aboriginal education,” says Marti Ford, the current dean of Aboriginal education for Red River College.

Today, Ford is the third dean – with the first two deans having both retired. As Ford notes, even today, very few post-secondary institutes have made such an extensive commitment to Aboriginal learning. With an array of programs available, Red River College has customized their Aboriginal resources to include:

  • A student support group.
  • A student support centre.
  • A transition program called Biindigen (“Welcome” in Ojibway).
  • Outreach “learning trips” to various venues from women’s shelters to Manitoba Hydro.
  • An elder-in-residence program to provide guidance, teachings and cultural support.
  • An urban orientation program for incoming rural/remote students.
  • A mentorship program using college alumni.
  • An Aboriginal recruitment officer to assist with job placement and career planning.
  • medicine wheel garden where traditional teachings can take place.
  • A time out program to assist with down time activities for students.
  • A student community
  • Christmas party for adults and children.
  • A student community kitchen program to teach the preparation of low-cost, nutritious meals.
  • A graduation pow wow ceremony with honour song.

The college also offers Access model programs which were first introduced in the 1970s. Designed to help Aboriginal students, inner city students and new immigrants, the programs provide support to obtain an education as well as to break the cycle of poverty that many experience.

“It’s such a short time that you see such a huge change in people; it’s why I’m in adult education,” says Ford.

“I look at peoples’ lives changing all the time…they may be on social assistance when they come in and do the Access nursing program, and four years later, when they graduate, they graduate into a job where they’re making twenty-five dollars an hour.”

“I remember saying to a student who had just graduated, “So, what’s new?” and she said, “What’s new! Marti, I’ve got new furniture…my child has new clothes….we’ve got a new car. We’ve got everything now.”

Ford says the ultimate goal at Red River College is to have post-secondary education systems teaching students holistically using Aboriginal methods.

“We’re working on curriculum development using the medicine wheel as a tool for holistic learning and teaching and we’ve presented it at four different conferences across Canada,” she says.

“So far, people are saying, “What a great idea, we need to see more of this.”

Clearly, using a holistic approach, training institutions can meet the needs of students in a well-rounded way that addresses many concerns.

“You can have a student who is as motivated as anything but if they’re sitting in your classroom and they’re thinking, “How am I going to feed my kids this week?” or “Where am I going to get money to pay my rent?” or “How am I going to get home because I don’t have a bus pass?” then they’re not going to learn anything,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter how motivated the student is, it’s the other supports that we can provide that helps them get through each one of these days so their motivation can be utilized to make them successful students.”

This article first appeared in our Spring 2007 newsletter.

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