April 11, 2022

'It is not an unchallenging ride': Métis nursing student on staying connected to culture in a university environment

UCalgary Nursing hopes to encourage more Indigenous students to consider nursing as a career through UCalgary Giving Day April 21
The first time Erin Berland put on her nursing scrubs, a proud moment.

It is universally acknowledged as one of the challenges for Indigenous students coming to a major centre like Calgary for university education: leaving your support system, whether on the reserve or in your very family-focused community, does not allow much opportunity to keep connected to your culture. 

For third-year nursing student Erin Berland who moved from Lac La Biche, north of Edmonton, (population: less than 3,000) to the University of Calgary, roughly eight times that size on the campus alone, her first year was very much an exciting, but big change for this reason. But family values and a very close relationship to her parents and grandparents, who were supportive of her attending university, helped her get to a place of comfort in Calgary and in her program. 

“Lac La Biche is surrounded by two Métis settlements and four First Nation’s reserves,” explains Berland. “Moving from my small community to Calgary was a huge change for me to get used to. I sometimes feel like I am the minority because there is a lower population of Indigenous people here compared to where I am from, but I have used it as motivation to stay connected with my culture no matter what.” 

Erin Berland with her Metis sash at her high-school graduation.

Berland says she feels extremely fortunate to not have experienced discrimination so far and is grateful that, as an Indigenous student, there have been lots of resources to help with post-secondary education. Even though her high school average was high at 89 per cent, she was just below the competitive average for admission to UCalgary Nursing. 

“Because there was space dedicated to Indigenous students and my average was high, I got accepted,” she says, “but Indigenous students still have to work hard to make good grades and overcome boundaries that other students do not have. It is not as easy as people may think.” 

While anti-Indigenous sentiment is something Berland herself has not yet felt, members of her family have and their experiences have helped guide her. 

“My kookum is a Métis woman and, at the age of five, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanitarium for 18 months,” Berland says. “She explained to me that she was very scared and cried when she arrived because she could not understand the nurses. She only spoke Cree.”

Another patient explained that she needed to learn English and so she did, but when she returned home, her mother was upset at her for not speaking Cree, something very confusing to Berland’s grandmother.

“Discrimination was sadly something she just had to deal with and she did not know why.” Later, says Berland, her grandmother worked in home care where, because she was Métis, she was able to connect with the Elders who spoke Cree. But some of her clients did not trust her, based on her appearance and assigned her to other tasks not in her home care role.

Erin with her kookum Irene Berland and her mooshum Lawrence Berland

“My kookum is a strong woman,” Berland says proudly. “We have talked about how important cultural sensitivity is and how she wishes there was more awareness back then. We also discussed how Indigenous nurses can really help to bridge the gap in health care."

Many Indigenous people have difficulty trusting the health-care systems due to past trauma or different beliefs. Hearing my own family's stories motivate me to be the change.  

UCalgary Nursing is hoping to encourage more Indigenous students to consider nursing as a career through UCalgary Giving Day. Part of the UCalgary Nursing Indigenous Initiatives mandate is to help create resilient communities through gifts to support integrating Indigenous history in the curriculum, recognizing the value of Indigenous health practices, understanding Indigenous rights, and increasing the number of Indigenous registered nurses. 

For her part, Berland feels that the university does a good job of welcoming Indigenous students into the program. 

“UCalgary Nursing really stresses the importance of cultural safety, especially with minority populations,” she says. “My Term 3 community placement was with Morley Community School. Due to COVID, my clinical group and I unfortunately did not get to work directly with our community, but we did get to speak with Elders which I found really valuable.”  

Berland has a passion for taking care of people. “I worked in an assisted living facility in high school and then in my Grade 12 year I was hired as a Care Aid. I loved it, and I loved working with the elderly population.”

Although it is still early, she is leaning towards hospice and palliative care as a career goal. “Hearing Elders speak about their past experiences with health care and residential schools has been motivating. As Indigenous students, we are extremely lucky to be allowed to work in health care and practice our culture openly. I hope one day, I can connect with the Elders in my care on a deeper level and make them proud.” 

Erin Berland and her mooshum Lawrence Berland on the trapline.

On April 21, 2022 UCalgary Giving Day returns. With your generous support, UCalgary Nursing is breaking down barriers to innovation, creating health systems transformation. You make it happen!