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Concordia launches program to increase Indigenous student graduation rate in engineering

The initiative is the latest bridging program at a Canadian university to address the under-representation of Indigenous students in STEM fields.


Starting this fall, Indigenous students will be able to enter an engineering bridging program at Concordia University in Montreal.

The new program, called Kaié:ri Nikawerà:ke Indigenous Bridging Program, which means “the four winds” or “the four directions” in Kanien’kéha (also known as the Mohawk language), is designed for Indigenous students who don’t meet Concordia’s traditional admission requirements. It gives them an opportunity to transition into the university’s undergraduate engineering program by first completing three terms of study.

Upon their acceptance into the bridging program, students move through the curriculum as a cohort with the same course schedule. In addition to math, science and technical writing – credits which count towards an engineering degree – students will also take part in a year-long student-focused seminar that functions like a homeroom class, said program coordinator Saba Din.

Led by an Indigenous facilitator, the seminar is intended to be a place where students can seek support for personal, cultural or academic needs. The program can bring tutors into the classroom, for example, and help students to connect with Elders, Ms. Din said. The seminar is also where students can learn about on- and off-campus resources, like daycare support and Concordia’s Otsenhákta Student Centre, a space specifically for Indigenous students.

In the seminar course, they’ll also learn skills to assist in their transition to university and to life in Montreal – things like wellness strategies, stress management and financial literacy. Students will also take a weekly university skills course where they’ll get assistance with time management, goal-setting and study skills. When students successfully complete the bridging program, they don’t have to reapply to Concordia; instead, they can continue into an undergraduate engineering program.

The notion of an engineering bridging program for Indigenous students at Concordia has been discussed for a few years, first recommended in the university’s 2019 Indigenous Directions Action Plan.

“The representation of Indigenous peoples in STEM fields is quite low,” Ms. Din said. “And unfortunately, even access to quality STEM education might be limited for some Indigenous students. We already know that there’s systemic barriers and inequalities that they face in the education system and I think it makes it even harder to get into STEM fields.”

Across Canada, universities have been trying to address these barriers and inequalities. General bridging programs, which act as a sort of general foundations course to help students upgrade course grades for admission and prepare for university life, are becoming more common. However, there’s just a handful of STEM-specific programs for Indigenous students.

The University of Saskatchewan offers the Indigenous Student Achievement Pathway STEM Accelerator certificate, a program for students who need prerequisite high-school science courses or who’ve been away from school for more than three years. At Queen’s University, although there’s not a formal academic bridging framework in place, two programs – Indigenous Futures in Engineering and STEM Indigenous Academics – offer supports throughout students’ time in the engineering program.

The University of Manitoba introduced its Engineering Access Program (ENGAP) in 1985. The university created the program in response to hydroelectric development in the province and the need for Indigenous engineers who were familiar with the northern First Nations communities where the work was taking place.

ENGAP provides preparatory courses and supports for student success, including free tutoring, counselling and job search advice. Since the program’s inception, 158 Indigenous students have graduated, all receiving the same engineering degree as non-ENGAP students.

Randy Herrmann, ENGAP’s director, said the program exists to help level the playing field. “If we don’t have support programs like this, it almost becomes impossible for Indigenous people or minorities, disadvantaged people, to access the university in general, and engineering specifically.” Mr. Herrmann noted that a few years ago, the admission requirements for engineering at U of Manitoba were so competitive that he wouldn’t have gotten in with his high school marks.

“The only people who were getting into engineering were students with so much privilege that they didn’t have to work summer jobs because their university [tuition] was already paid for and they could focus all their time on school so they could get a 95 per cent average,” he said. “I wasn’t one of those kids.”

Mr. Herrmann, who is Métis, graduated from U of Manitoba with a degree in geological engineering in 1988. He was a first-generation university student who didn’t know any engineers. Meanwhile, many of his classmates had summer jobs at relatives’ engineering companies. “They all had these inroads into the profession already that I didn’t have,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that I want to make sure my students have access to.”

 Other barriers for Indigenous students interested in engineering can include prerequisite math and science courses not being offered at high schools in small communities, as well as the perception of the postsecondary experience as mystifying and complex, especially when other family members may not have gone to university.

“What I really feel is so important about a program like this,” said Ms. Din of Concordia, “is it not only helps an individual achieve success, but they can take their leadership back to their community and really make positive change or inspire others to pursue their dreams in the same way.”

As Concordia built the program over the last year, Ms. Din consulted with people at the university – professors, Indigenous faculty and staff, and the university’s office of Indigenous directions – and those in the wider community, including CEGEPs, the leadership non-profit Northern Youth Abroad, as well as education centres near Montreal.

“We tried to really get a sense of how to shape this program in a way that will help students be successful,” Ms. Din said.

 She expects a small number of applicants for the first year but said that the university wants to keep enrolment numbers low so that students get personalized attention. Concordia has plans to expand its bridging program to business and psychology in the near future.

Increasing diversity in engineering – and any other field – isn’t about ticking a box. It’s about making a better workforce, said Mr. Herrmann. For engineering companies who work in Indigenous communities, it makes sense to hire Indigenous engineers.

“If you look at an engineering consulting office, there’s typically one demographic that’s overrepresented at the expense of all the other demographics,” he said. “Only by changing that can we actually have better designs coming out of the engineering world.”

Trevor Ouellette knows this. He was the fifth student to graduate from ENGAP, back in 1994. Today, the Inuit and Métis civil engineer works at Manitoba Hydro, focusing on water and sewer projects in remote communities. His daughter is in her second year of ENGAP.

“I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go through the engineering program if I didn’t have that support network [of ENGAP] in place,” Mr. Ouellette said. “Being given that extra little helping hand sure made a difference for me.”

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