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Academic exploration program for Indigenous students takes flight

A new program launched by McGill Enrolment Services’ Branches program offers Indigenous students the chance to explore academic possibilities at McGill.

Headshot of Justin Almazan

Justin Almazan knows first-hand the benefit of mentorship.

He was exposed to mentoring programs when he started middle school, high school and in his freshmen year of college.

“It always just made me feel a little bit more settled once I started school,” says Almazan, GrDipPerformance’18, GradArtistDiploma’20 (pictured above).

A violist who is now doing his master’s in music at McGill, Almazan spent part of his summer in a mentoring role with the University’s new Pick your Path program, a four-week online learning experience for Indigenous students.

The program aims to nurture Indigenous students’ interest in education by exposing them to academic fields and career exploration. It also seeks to close a gap: the lack of equitable opportunities for Indigenous students to familiarize themselves with what student life at McGill looks like.

Each student was paired up with an Indigenous mentor – all of whom were McGill students and a recent graduate.

Participants attended online workshops where they heard from professors, including Indigenous faculty, in several fields: Indigenous Studies and Linguistics, Engineering, Social Work, Law, Physical Sciences and Nutrition. They also learned about the Indigenous Health Professions Program in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and received tips on writing a CV and preparing for interviews from McGill’s Career Planning Service.

“I think these sort of outreach programs are really important,” says Almazan, a First Nations student who hails from Seattle and Vancouver.

“In our own communities, it’s difficult to get kids to graduate high school in some cases,” he says.

McGill is aiming to boost its Indigenous student enrolment. While McGill’s Enrolment Services established the Branches program in 2019 in an effort to deepen outreach and strengthen relationship-building efforts with under-represented communities, the final report of the Provost's Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education highlights student recruitment and retention as imperative calls to action.

The Branches program ran Pick your Path this summer with four Indigenous students from CEGEP and university. It plans to offer two sessions during March Break 2021 for high school students – hopefully to a minimum of six Indigenous participants and also six students from other under-represented communities.  

We’re identifying to start some high schools in Montreal that are in under-served communities. And then we will try to recruit those students who are interested in, and curious about academics, but don’t necessarily have the same opportunities in these kinds of things,” says Veronica Amberg, Branches’ associate director.

They’re starting small with the pilot projects to make sure they’re responding to the needs, explains Amberg. “We’re trying things out – we want to have a really good quality program and then expand it.”

They would like to offer different streams for students in high school, CEGEP and undergrads who are considering graduate studies.

Participants in the summer pilot received a monetary award. The rationale for the stipend, says Amberg, is that unlike some who don’t experience barriers, students may not be able to take part in a summer program like this because they need to work. The mentors also received compensation.

The project was awarded just over $7,200 from McGill’s Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF), which promotes a culture of sustainability on McGill campuses through the seed-funding of interdisciplinary projects. SPF projects advance the integration of all three pillars of sustainability – social, economic, and environmental – into the fabric of the University.

Pick Your Path shines a light on a social sustainability issue at McGill, “by considering how we actively invite Indigenous youth to our campuses and create equitable opportunities for them to access post-secondary education,” notes Stéphanie Keller-Busque, SPF Administrator at the McGill Office of Sustainability. 

Branches had planned to offer IMPRESS (Indigenous Mentorship and Paid Research Experience for Summer Students) in Summer 2020, but the pandemic scuttled that on-campus program. Instead, it came up with the online Pick your Path. Both have the same mission of sparking interest in education through exposure to various fields of study.

“For Pick your Path, it’s also empowering them, supporting them in getting the tools so they can make empowered and informed decisions when they have to pick their path eventually, either career or education,” says Mayela Lozano, from the Branches program.

Each student, had to prepare a final project based on the question: “What are the next steps in my educational path?”

The undergraduate student Almazan mentored was interested in medical school. “Together he and I looked up the requirements and we ended up making that his final project,” Almazan says.

Feedback from participants was positive, according to Lozano. Among their suggestions was to make the workshops a bit more interactive.

For their part, the mentors asked to be even more involved with the students, and they’ll ensure that happens in the next iteration during March Break, Lozano says.

Almazan loved being part of the program and hopes he gets to do it again. One reason he took part, he says, is he feels a responsibility to do so. He feels fortunate to have had mentors that guided him toward college. “I never really thought that I couldn’t do it. And I feel really lucky that I have that mentality.”

Learn more about McGill’s community outreach program Branches and the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF the largest fund of its kind in Canada – which supports a culture of sustainability on the University’s campuses.