Learning from Aboriginal Youth Transitioning from High School to University


After following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (2015) final report and reading its documents carefully, it was clear to me that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission believes education is one of the keys to meaningful reconciliation between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Canadians. It is an exciting time as we attempt to move forward together as a country. Yet much work still remains to be done in terms of improving educational access and outcomes for Aboriginal learners, particularly for high school to university transitions. For example, the high school completion rates for Aboriginal students within the province of British Columbia remains lower than those for non-Aboriginal students due to the on-going deleterious impacts of colonialism. In 2011/2012, the provincial public high school Dogwood Program six-year completion rate was 57% for Aboriginal students, compared with 84% for non-Aboriginal students (B.C. Ministry of Education, 2011a; p 29). The high school completion rates are similar across the country with 55.3% of Aboriginal women and 48% of Aboriginal men qualifying for post-secondary (Statistics Canada, 2011). These high school completion rates clearly have a direct correlation with the number of Aboriginal students who are eligible to transition to university directly from high school.

As an Indigenous researcher, working across multiple educational contexts in British Columbia, I had the great honour and privilege to work with Aboriginal youth in order to understand how the unique social, historical, cultural, and Indigenous knowledge contexts of Aboriginal communities in British Columbia shape high school to university transitions. This study specifically investigated Aboriginal early university promotion initiatives (AEUPI) that are designed to introduce Aboriginal youth (aged 12 to 18) to university by attending a summer bridging program, and Aboriginal youth aged 19 to 24 who were attending an Aboriginal university transition program (AUTP) at a BC research intensive university.

Existing Research

The majority of existing research and literature about university transitions is not always relevant for Aboriginal learners. For example, a number of studies utilize psychological and institutional frameworks in order to understand the adverse effects on individual students in times of transition and change (Astin, 1993; Falk & Aitken, 1984; Holmes, 1995; Holmes, 1996; Malatest & Associates, 2004; Tinto, 1999). Some of these studies acknowledge that Aboriginal learners may be at a greater “risk” of not succeeding in post-secondary endeavours and that changes in physical location, disruption of peer and family relationships, and adjustments to new academic and social expectations can negatively impact an Aboriginal learner’s transition into post-secondary education. However, none of these studies focus specifically on university transition pathways (such as Aboriginal Early University Promotion Initiatives or Aboriginal University Transition Programs) that Aboriginal learners participate in. And while these studies highlight some of the difficulties and tensions experienced by individual Aboriginal students, they often focus negatively on the deficits of the individual learner as the primary reason for their failure to transition and do not acknowledge the myriad of institutional barriers that lead to systemic discrimination for Aboriginal learners and communities.

Most institutional viewpoints on the subject narrowly view transition in terms of issues of access, recruitment, admission, retention and university completion rates. Therein, university transition is conceptualized as a linear process defined by individuals applying to, entering, and then acculturating into the institution. Often, the metaphor of a “pipeline” is erroneously used to describe the transition process for Indigenous learners (Brayboy, Fann, Castagno, & Solyom, 2012). From this standpoint, transition to university is usually regarded as a positive experience involving new opportunities and change for the learners (Tinto, 1975; 1993). The “acculturation” (i.e., assimilation) process is seen as providing the individual student with the knowledge needed to understand the institutions’ norms, procedures, and expectations of them. In other words, transition is seen as following a unidirectional trajectory in which an Indigenous student intentionally assimilates into the culture of the university. This leaves little room for institutional accountability (Pidgeon, 2008a) or an understanding of the continued impacts of colonialism that leads to systemic discrimination. As a result, the university is required to take little, if any, responsibility for transforming its policies and practices to reflect the culture(s) and Indigenous knowledge of Aboriginal learners. I felt it was important to first explore the meaning of transitions with research participants, and second to re-frame university transitions utilizing Indigenous theoretical perspective(s).

Aboriginal Early University Promotion Initiatives

Some universities across Canada are now beginning to offer a limited range of promotion initiatives and strategies aimed at encouraging Aboriginal youth to attend university (Universities Canada, 2015). These include: Aboriginal high school career fairs, Aboriginal summer high school-to-university bridging programs (which range from general to specifically focusing on particular disciplines), hiring Aboriginal university recruitment officers to visit schools and communities, and cultural camps which emphasize Indigenous traditions, such as connection to the land on which the university is located. The Aboriginal Early University Initiatives in this study included: University of British Columbia’s C.E.D.A.R. Program, Emerging Summer Scholars Program & Summer Science Program; University of British Columbia (Okanagan); University of Victoria’s Indigenous Mini-University Summer Program.

Aboriginal University Transition Programs

Aboriginal university transition programs are the dominant pathway by which most Aboriginal learners enter university in Canada. Educational institutions and branches of government give these programs a variety of names— university and college entrance programs, access programs, transition programs and bridging programs. Aboriginal learners in these programs are conditionally admitted to university through an admissions process that utilizes personal references and interviews, and also takes the life experiences of the applicant into account. An environmental scan of the Association of Canadian Universities (AUCC) reveals that there are currently 45 Aboriginal transition programs at 29 of the 54 AUCC recognized universities in Canada. Most of these programs are designed to attract two different student populations: (a) mature students who have been out of school for a long period of time and may not have a high school diploma; and (b) recent high school graduates who may not have the academic pre-requisites for university entrance. The Aboriginal University Transition Programs in this study included the Simon Fraser University Aboriginal Bridging Program & Aboriginal Pre-health Program and the University of British Columbia’s ACCESS Program.

Summary of Findings

Key findings from the Aboriginal youth in this study suggest that learning about university through real-life experiences offered by the initiatives/programs was meaningful. Second, both the Aboriginal Early University Promotion Initiatives (AEUPI) and Aboriginal University Transition Programs (AUTP) provided youth with concrete opportunities to explore future academic and career pathways. Third, ensuring that the youth were provided with opportunities to develop relationships with positive Aboriginal role models in the university was seen as a success factor. Fourth, the AEUPI youth shared stories about the important leadership skills they developed as role models and mentors to younger youth in the initiatives, which in turn assisted them with their visioning process for university. Fifth, the students’ sense of belonging at university was fostered by relationships with AEUPI and AUTP staff, Indigenous student support staff, Elders, and faculty. Sixth, the AEUPI youth overwhelmingly agreed that the experiences they had in these initiatives led them to feel wholisticallysuccessful. However, the AUTP youth had a conflicting experience after enrolling in their full time undergraduate studies. Ultimately, insights from the youths’ stories suggest that the future of AEUPIs is a promising one if educators working with Aboriginal youth encourage attendance in these initiatives and promote university education throughout the entire K to 12 schooling process.

What can K – 12 Educators do to ensure smoother high school to university transitions for Aboriginal youth?

At meetings and public presentations I am often met with the question “As an educator what can I do to ensure more Aboriginal learners transition into university?” This is a question that delights me as I see K to 12 educators as being a vital link that can assist Aboriginal learners with their “visioning process2” to university. Educators can facilitate this visioning process in a number of ways. First, they can reframe transitions by explaining to Aboriginal youth that they are ongoing and continuous for Aboriginal learners. This process can begin early in the elementary years and be facilitated with strong mentorship and by creating expectations of postsecondary attendance in daily interactions with Aboriginal students (despite perceived ability or current academic standing).

Second, initiate dialogue with family and community members in order to shape Indigenous learners’ experiences and goals in and out of the classroom to further their post-secondary aspirations. This may also include asking Aboriginal parents to identify community resources and people who can assist with the visioning process. Find out what types of Aboriginal early university promotion initiatives exist in the community and/or in partnership with local postsecondary institutions. If such initiatives exist, offer to assist students and parents with completing the application forms. Arranging visits to local universities in order for students and their families to meet Aboriginal student service staff can also help to ensure the likelihood that students will feel comfortable attending these initiatives.

Third, invite Aboriginal role models into your school who can share the importance of attending university as well as their career and life goals.

Fourth, be willing to have “courageous conversations” (Smith, 2015) with colleagues when incidents of racism and discrimination arise with Aboriginal learners and their families. These “courageous conversations” (Smith, 2015) can go a long way in assisting Aboriginal learners and their families to feel safe within a school and be a small step in combatting the systemic issues that prevent Aboriginal learners from fulfilling their true potential.

As a researcher, educator and parent, I thank you in advance for being a transformative agent of change in these exciting times of reconciliation!

Works Cited
Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Avison, A. (2004). A Challenge worth meeting: Opportunities for improving Aboriginal education outcomes. Prepared for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.

Brayboy, B., Fann, A., Castagno, A., Solyom, J. (2012). Postsecondary education for American Indian and Alaska Natives: Higher education for nation building and self-determination. ASHE Higher Education Report, 37(5).

British Columbia Ministry of Education (2011a). How are we doing? Aboriginal Performance Data. Last retrieved February 28th, 2014 from performance.htm.

Falk, D. R., & Aitken, L. P. (1984). Promoting retention among American Indian college students. Journal of American Indian Education, 23(2), 24-31.

Heslop, J. (2012). Research results from the student transitions project. Last retrieved February 28th, 2014 from http://www.aved.gov.bc.ca/student_transitions/documents/stp_highlights_june12.pdf

Holmes, D. (2006). Redressing the balance: Canadian university programs in support of Aboriginal students. Report Prepared for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, Ottawa. Last retrieved February 28th, 2014 from http://www.aucc.ca/_pdf/english/reports/2006/programs_aboriginal_students_e.df

Malatest & Associates. (2002). Best practices for increasing Aboriginal post-secondary enrollment rates. Prepared for the Council of Ministers of Education Canada. Victoria, British Columbia.

Malatest & Associates. (2004). Aboriginal peoples and post-secondary education: What educators have learned. Prepared for the Canadian Millennium Foundation. Last retrieved February 28th, 2014 from, http://www.turtleisland.org/education/postseced.pdf

Ortiz, A. & HeavyRunner, I. (2003). Student access, retention, and success: Models of inclusion and support. In M. Ah Nee-Benham, & W. J. Stein, (Eds.), The renaissance of American Indian higher education. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pidgeon, M. (2008a). It takes more than good intentions: Institutional accountability and responsibility to higher education. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Statistics Canada (2011). Proportion of First Nations people, Métis and Inuit aged 25 to 64 by selected levels of educational attainment and sex, Canada, 2011. Retrieved from http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/ as-sa/99-012-x/2011003/tbl/tbl2-eng.cfm

Smith, Linda (2015). President’s Dream Colloquium on Protecting Indigenous Cultural Heritage: Munro Lecture. Simon Fraser University.

Tinto, V. (1999). Taking retention seriously: Rethinking the first year of college. NACADA Journal, 19(2), 5-9.

Universities Canada (2015). Closing Canada’s Indigenous Gap. Retrieved from http://www.univcan.ca/wp-content/ uploads/2015/09/issue-closing-canadas indigenous-gap-oct-2015.pdf

End Notes
1 I intentionally use the term “wholistic” to refer to the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual process that educates the whole person. I also do so to place the term “wholistic’ in an Indigenous epistemological framework and to differentiate it from “holistic” (since the latter is located in a Western liberal humanist framework).

2 Heavy Runner (2009) defines visioning as “a creative exploration of choices [that assist] students to begin their journey into higher education, particularly for first generation students” (p.126).


Amy Parent
Amy Parent is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Education in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and the mother of two children.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2016 issue.

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