First-of-its-kind partnership addresses needs of Indigenous students from Manitoba

Werklund School’s blended MEd cohort opens access for remote communities

When the only route out of town is by plane or the seasonal ice roads, it can be a difficult commute for an aspiring graduate student hoping to balance studies with a career.  As a school administrator based in St. Theresa Point First Nation in northern Manitoba, Tanya McDougall knows firsthand the challenges of living in such a remote region. 

“Coming from an isolated community, opportunities to pursue a higher education are not always available and normally require that we relocate,” explains McDougall. 

But through the Werklund School of Education’s inaugural Indigenous student cohort in partnership with the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre (MFNERC), McDougall will soon begin a three-year Master of Education in School and Applied Child Psychology (MEd SACP) degree.  She will join a cohort of 13 other Indigenous students, successful applicants who will be pursuing their graduate studies while remaining in their home communities in Manitoba.  Many of the 17 courses are a blend of online and in-person programming. The cohort will meet on the UCalgary campus this summer, and again for their practica during the next two spring terms. In turn, Werklund School instructors will teach in Manitoba throughout the year.

Assistant Professor Meadow Schroeder, who helped develop the initiative, sees it as a strong fit for Werklund School’s already existing blended studies program.

“We were able to find a mix of on campus and online instruction that works for this cohort, making education accessible for working professionals who want to obtain higher education but for many reasons can’t complete an on campus program – financial, family, and work commitments,” says Schroeder.  “It allows individuals living in rural areas to access education that they probably wouldn’t obtain elsewhere.”

Program addresses community needs

This MEd is a program that works for a fulltime school administrator like McDougall.  Manitoba faces a shortage of First Nations child psychologists in their schools.  Motivated by the needs of her community and inspired by the children she has taught, McDougall understands the necessity for increased capacities and improved services in school psychology, especially among her First Nations community.

“We can see the damaging effects the residential school era had on our people and communities.  Even we, as students, are still struggling with the effects on personal levels, and know it’s imperative that we overcome whatever battles we have.”  McDougall believes that through the cohort students will have the opportunity to discuss the issues they are dealing with as a people, as well as how they can make steps to overcome them, and addressing them with the children they engage on a daily basis. 
“We’re not only driven by needs,” she adds, “but we see where we can make a difference in paving the way for a better tomorrow for future generations.” 

“The cohort model works well for our First Nations people,” explains Lorne Keeper, executive director of MFNERC.  “As groups share the same goals, dreams, and struggle, they quickly become one large family wherein they provide support and encouragement to one another.  No one gets lost in the process.” As a partner, MFNERC is well placed to support this cohort, and will help monitor student progress and build measures to ensure student success.

Incorporating Indigenous voices and knowledge

Dr. Erica Makarenko, Werklund’s academic coordinator for the MEd SACP program, describes the conscious effort being made to incorporate Indigenous ways of life and of being into the program.  “We want to ensure we’re doing justice to Indigenous knowledge, including consultations with Indigenous scholars and those of Indigenous backgrounds. It’s really about greater authenticity, so that it’s not us prescribing everything, but rather bringing indigenous knowledge into the course design process.” 

At the official signing ceremony between the University of Calgary and MFNERC on Wednesday, March 28th, Provost Dru Marshall, underscored the connection of this program with the university’s broader Indigenous Strategy.  “This program will integrate contextualized approaches that help reinstate cultural narratives, traditional knowledge and Indigenous worldviews.  It is an opportunity for us to explore, support and sustain the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in our teaching, learning, and our practices.” 

For professionals like McDougall it’s an opportunity to work and learn alongside colleagues who share the same concerns.  “They are an incredibly passionate group who are driven by the love we all have for our children.  The fact that we can focus our interests and discuss the unique concerns of children living in First Nation communities makes this educational experience that much more meaningful.”

The University of Calgary unveiled its Indigenous Strategy, ii' taa' poh' to' p, on Nov. 16, 2017. The strategy is the result of nearly two years of community dialogue and campus engagement, and involved the work of a number of people from the university, Indigenous communities and community stakeholders. Recommendations from the strategy are being implemented as we move forward with promise, hope and caring for the future.