Totem Poles outside of Shq'apthut (A Gathering Place) at VIU campus.

Shq’apthut Totem Poles / Image via Chris Beaton

I’m sitting in my third-year Indigenous Literature course as my non-Indigenous professor begins his lecture. I look around and wonder if I am the only Indigenous person in the room.

In high school I was well aware of the low Indigenous graduation rates at both the secondary and post-secondary levels. My family, educators, and members of my community would remind me how important an education is. 

The same year I graduated high school, only 46 percent of Indigenous men had a postsecondary qualification and eight percent had achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to Statistics Canada,

As an Indigenous student I’m less likely to succeed in my education.

This weighed heavily on me.

I thought I was prepared to continue my education after graduating high school. My family made it feel like the natural next step in my life. It’s impressive they were able to accomplish this considering how few of my family members have reached that level of education. 

While in university, professors informed me that my Indigenous heritage could lead to a successful career. Although Indigenous graduation rates have risen, there is still a pressing need for Indigenous academics. 

I knew my education was going to be hard work. I’m now a fifth-year student at VIU and I can safely say it wears on me mentally, physically, and emotionally. 

But I was unprepared for how much I would be affected spiritually. 

I’m an English major and I’m learning about Indigenous literature from a non-Indigenous educator. Indigenous graduation rates are circling my brain and I’m trying to figure out if I was born to fail or if I can overcome the odds. 

It’s no easy task, and not one I can do alone.

I wanted to look into what resources are offered to Indigenous students at VIU, and how aware students are of these supports. 

Alyssa Cunningham is a Métis student at VIU majoring in English. Between the two of us, we’ve taken a wide array of Indigenous studies, First Nations literature, and history courses. 

None have been taught by an Indigenous professor. 

This is no fault of the non-Indigenous educators. Indigenous professors are few and far between. 

I spoke with Cunningham about her time as an Indigenous student at VIU and what kind of support for Indigenous students she is aware of. The first one that came to mind was Shq’apthut (A Gathering Place) on the Nanaimo campus. 

Shq’apthut is meant to be a “home away from home” for Indigenous students where they can connect for academic support, visit elders-in-residence, and find recreational and social activities. 

Shq’apthut has a massive physical presence, including a beautiful building alive with art and culture. There are three impressive totem poles out front of Shq’apthut that look over the Gymnasium and lower campus. Each totem pole represents one of the tribal territories on Vancouver Island: Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish. 

Other VIU resources that don’t have such a prominent and eye-catching landmark can be much more difficult to discover and get access to.

Sylvia Scow, Aboriginal Projects Coordinator and Elder Support, shared some insight on VIU’s wraparound services they provide to their students, graduates, and prospective students. She is one of many Indigenous support faculty members at VIU, along with Indigenous education navigators, employment navigators, and a portfolio coordinator. 

There are also eight elders at VIU for students to connect with. Five are located on the Nanaimo campus, two are at Cowichan, and there’s one for Campbell River. Scow strongly encouraged students to reach out to them, especially for those away from home who might be in search of guidance. 

On the fourth floor in building 180 is the Office of Indigenous Education and Engagement. They can help you get in contact with the resident elders. 

Community Cousins is a mentorship program at VIU which provides the opportunity for students to work with peers who can share their own experiences. It’s a program that is intended to help students find their community, which Scow, Cunningham, and myself place a lot of importance in. 

Scow encourages students to take responsibility for their support systems. 

“Students should know their resources and make connections at their school and in their community,” she said. “They should get to know the elders and take advantage of the services offered to them.” 

As well as academic and cultural support for students, there are a lot of funding opportunities at VIU. The Mastercard Foundation EleV scholarship program is a resource I was lucky enough to receive.

EleV offers financial assistance and support for getting resources and seeks to provide students with the tools to find success. They’ve been incredibly kind and supportive of me throughout my education. Through EleV I’ve gotten new backpacks and a laptop.

If I had not received their support, I’m doubtful I would have found as much success in my post-secondary studies. 

VIU offers a large number of services that cover many areas students need support in. But Cunningham has unfortunately heard of very few. She admits she hasn’t always been a person who actively looks for help, which is something she’s working on.

The question is: how much of this responsibility should be on the students?

Newsletters, emails, events, and social media are outreach tools VIU uses to promote funding, culture, and academic support. These are often seen as the most accessible methods of communication. 

But Cunningham is an Indigenous student who veers away from social media, which means she may not have as many opportunities to access these resources as others.

I frequently engage with social media and regularly check my email, but I was also unaware of just how vast the university’s programs are.

I’ve grown up in Nanaimo my whole life and was never approached by an Indigenous VIU recruiter or representative. I was only made aware of these resources after my own investigation. 

I wish I’d known earlier. 

Students like Cunningham will graduate this year with little to no knowledge on the matter. 

One of Cunningham’s suggestions for improvement on awareness is that VIU is more active in reaching out to high schools, as these supports can influence a student’s decision on where to go. If students knew about the available funding, it could even impact whether or not they continue their education.

Professors could also be more proactive. While they tend to go over various resources for students’ well-being, it’s not often that they take the extra time to discuss what opportunities there are for Indigenous students. 

There is enough for students to worry about—grades, friends, family, fitting in—the last thing on their minds is ‘How do I help myself?’

Cunningham looked into scholarships, bursaries, and other financial opportunities, but had no luck in receiving support. 

When I told her about EleV and what they offer, she was disappointed that she hadn’t known about it. Although her research was limited, getting rejected from funding was disheartening.

“If I didn’t get it this time, why would I the next?” Cunningham said.

Another one of Cunningham’s ideas for supporting Indigenous students was a student-run Indigenous peoples club. This would need to be actioned by students, but it’s a great way to build community and find more support through students who have recently experienced and continue to experience similar hardships. It would also celebrate Indigenous student successes. 

To Indigenous students enrolled at VIU, I want you to know there are resources offered at every step of your education. They might be hard to find, but they are there, and they are there to be used. Whether you’re a first-year or fifth-year, I strongly encourage you to find your support.

Let's Make Things Official

Get a curated list of articles sent directly to your email once a week. It’s not delivery, its Delissio