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​​​​​​University of Alberta program helps Indigenous students overcome barriers, pursue STEM degrees

Schooling is the pathway to better opportunities for so many. But for students like Austin (pictured above right with his math tutor, Tim Erikson), ambition alone may not be enough. EPCOR helps remove barriers to educational success ​​​— from kindergarten to post-secondary​ ​

​By Neil Wedin

​​Huge lectures halls, stressful courses, and feeling alone at a massive college or university is a stressful prospect for anyone. For students fresh out of high school it can be scary. For someone who has been in the workforce for a few years, it can be overwhelming. Support is essential, especially when a student is considering more challenging disciplines.

The Conference Board of Canada states that while Indigenous people make up over four percent of Canada’s population, only about two percent work in fields focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, known as STEM. The Board goes on to say that improving Indigenous participation and leadership in major economic sectors, such as science, technology, and finance, is an important part of the reconciliation journey.

Donations from EPCOR to the University of Alberta’s Transition Year Program (TYP)​ are helping address some of these issues. The three-year, $130,000 investment allows the university’s First Peoples’ House to create inclusive, supportive learning environments for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) students, specifically for those pursing degrees in STEM-related fields.

Getting class sizes down — to a science

“When we sat around a table together, we had an interesting discussion about why more students weren’t pursuing STEM,” says Gillian Adams, Senior Manager Marketing and Community Investment at EPCOR. “It was that conversation that led to a really creative solution and ultimately a proposal by the University of Alberta, and our commitment to funding that would reduce class sizes.”

​Today, the TYP offers students smaller classes, as well as one-on-one tutoring, refresher classes, and ongoing academic support whenever someone needs it. Smaller classes are less intimidating and foster stronger, more supportive relationships between instructors, students and their peers, many who are from rural communities and are away from home for the first time.

​Austin, 21, is in the TYP business track on his way to getting his Bachelor of Commerce degree. “I want to be able to give back to my community and help the less fortunate with understanding finances and… managing their own budgets,” he says. “The TYP program and the services provided have given me a sense of belonging, culture, identity and encouragement… without the support of First Peoples’ House and the TYP, I would be lost and most likely unsuccessful on my journey.”​​


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Learning Indige​​​nous ways of knowing

Dr.​​ Francis Whiskeyjack is a Cree Elder, educator, and cultural advisor. Dr. Whiskeyjack says that places like the First Peoples’ House allow students to spend time and “find a common ground, (and) not just for Indigenous students, but other groups can come, share, and learn the Indigenous ways of knowing and doing.”​

Programs like the TYP, he notes, build self-esteem, offer support services, and funding means more students will graduate, get better careers, and become leaders in the community. “Truth and reconciliation come through leadership and community,” and that “working together overcomes animosity. In the end, we are all Canadians,” says Dr. Whiskeyjack.​

Investing in future leaders​

​Tim Erickson has been a math tutor for over 18 years. “The reality is mathematics is often the weakest aspect a student has and failing that requirement puts their degree in danger,” he says. “From an instructor perspective, EPCOR’s support has made it possible to spend the time to work with individual students as required and there are many who benefit from every moment spent with them.”​​​​​

Austin and his math tutor, Tim.        ​

​​Suzanne Butler, Associate Director of the TYP notes that success is transformational. The program means FNMI students become “leaders and role models in their communities… and when one student succeeds, so does the family.” She adds that successful students pay it forward for the next generation, and create a ripple effect that results in highly skilled students who then offer support and mentorship to new students and their peers.

Suzanne notes that one of their biggest wins takes place when a student simply stops by her office to say, “Hey, I passed!” These moments of shared successes mean the program is making a difference. More success stories mean more students will apply, institutional support increases, programs will be expanded, and more youth will have a chance to succeed. It truly is win-win-win.

Supporting programs like the TYP helps break down barriers faced by many Indigenous students interested in an education in a STEM-based field. The support also means that a more diverse, engaged, and talented group of graduates enters the workforce. Corporations like EPCOR, in turn, gain access to an expansive labor pool that reflects the communities where they do business, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.

Read about how else EPCOR is helping young people along their educational journeys​

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