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Still Thriving: Supporting Indigenous Students During COVID-19

Lead Photo (Credit_ Baim Hanif) Option 1
Photo Credit: Baim Hanif
September 1, 2020

Emma Greenfield is a 2020 Social Connectedness Fellow working with TakingITGlobal to document the barriers and best practices within post-secondary institutions to create more inclusive environments for Indigenous students. Emma’s work largely centres around reimagining education systems that are more inclusive of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit stories, knowledge, and perspectives.

On July 28th, 2020, a virtual sharing circle brought together 46 staff and faculty across Canada who work with Indigenous students in post-secondary education. The gathering provided a forum for people to come together on common challenges but also a shared vision: to see First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students thrive.

As many colleges and universities closed their physical doors in response to COVID-19, supporting Indigenous students has been a challenge for many of those who play a vital role in fostering their well-being and success. The changes in program delivery coupled with social distancing measures requires staff and faculty to rethink how Indigenous students will be supported now and in the future. 

It is more important than ever for universities and colleges across Canada to understand how COVID-19 has impacted Indigenous students in new ways but has also exacerbated pre-existing barriers. With every student having to adapt to new policies and protocols, it is increasingly vital to shed light on how Indigenous students may be left behind. 

The largest barriers Indigenous students face as identified amongst participants include social isolation, no access to technological devices or WIFI at home, housing and food insecurity, and a heightened financial burden. Digital inequities make online learning impossible for Indigenous students and the heightened financial burden means that students are not only struggling to obtain the education they deserve, but to make ends meet.

Colleges and universities are in a place where creativity and resourcefulness can provide solutions for these very urgent issues. Responses should be immediate, flexible, and culturally, linguistically, and contextually relevant. Indigenous students know what they need in order to thrive and it is their voices that need to be heard.

During the sharing circle, staff and faculty identified challenges of their own including navigating policies with very little flexibility, difficulties with student engagement, financial restrictions, and the inability to support the unique and personal needs of each student at a distance. And yet, they still continue to be there for their community of current students, future students, and would-have-been students who had to put their dreams of attending college or university on hold until a more promising time. 

Despite the many challenges emerging from this unprecedented circumstance, staff and faculty continue to provide Indigenous students with meaningful experiences, from virtual Indigenous graduation celebrations, to online Pow Wows, to Elder-guided online traditional teachings

Many participants of the gathering have engaged in hopeful practices including hosting more Webinars, enhancing social media presence, and providing laptop and wireless hotspots for rental. These hopeful practices emerged from the ability to adapt to meet the new demands of a more virtual world. It is important to highlight the unmistakable resiliency required to adapt in this way. The virtual sharing circle brought to light the commitment of individuals to face these challenges head on. 

But colleges and universities need to do more.

Staff and faculty who work with Indigenous students need to be offered more support at this time so that they can, in turn, support students. The participants of the virtual knowledge sharing circle are the very foundation of Indigenous student success and wellbeing at every college and university. The need to listen for their suggestions and follow their recommendations is imperative in helping Indigenous students to thrive.

In closing the virtual sharing circle, participants were asked to write hopeful messages for Indigenous students. These are the messages they shared:

As a new academic year begins, let us remember these messages and aim to put them into action.