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Indigenous engineering students need more support

This column is produced through a partnership with the Indigenous Engineering Students Association of the University of Alberta and The Gateway.

Historically, the number of Aboriginal or self-identified Aboriginal students enrolled in engineering has been extremely low. With a lack of support for those coming from outside of Edmonton or from a low-income background, barriers arise that create inclusion and retention issues for students already in their degree programs.

Stories of Indigenous students receivingFree Educationare disheartening because they discredit the hard work and effort it takes to get into and stay in engineering. Perpetuating this myth also ignores the basic stressors that follow being an engineering student. Additionally, the general stigma of being an Indigenous STEM student weighs on a student’s psyche daily and can cause them to drop out of their program altogether.

The many challenges of being an Indigenous engineering student are closely related to each other, but can be categorized into three groups: financial stability, academic performance, and industry relations.

Financial security plays an important role in student performance in college. Start-up tuition followed by recurring monthly payments for rent, food, internet, and transportation over a semester are difficult to manage for general students who study full-time and cannot work outside of class. Engineering students face notoriously difficult coursework with class schedules filled with lectures and labs, so finding the opportunity to earn significant income to cover expenses while earning high grades is nearly impossible. In some cases, these expenses can be offset if a student lives at home with their family in town or if their family contributes to some of the costs associated with their studies. But for Indigenous students from rural communities outside of Edmonton or from low-income families, these options are simply not available.

In addition to financial constraints, general academic performance pressures also play a role in the success of Indigenous students. Often the admission requirements to enter engineering exceed what is provided by the public education system in Indigenous communities. Additional upgrading courses must be taken to meet the minimum requirements and even then, once a student enters their program, the university environment can be totally overwhelming and unappealing. The lack of representation and recognition of Indigenous peoples in engineering buildings and classroom materials can lead to feelings of isolation and inadequacy that can cause a student to drop out of their studies or even their program.

The final challenge facing Indigenous engineering students is the lack of professional networks outside of academia. Often, Aboriginal students are the first-generation post-secondary family members and don’t have mentors to steer them in the right direction with job searches during the summer or after graduation. The engineering job market is competitive and saturated with new graduates each year, which puts Indigenous students at a disadvantage due to our low enrolment.

Fortunately, the University of Alberta offers local support services for Aboriginal students to alleviate some of these difficulties. First Peoples House (FPH) and the Transition Year Program (TYP) are excellent resources for Indigenous students looking to enter the Faculty of Engineering or other programs at the U of A. They also offer excellent supports regarding financial, academic, and housing difficulties for students currently enrolled at the university. Together, they offer tutoring services, financial aid and scholarships, financial literacy courses, counseling and residence assistance, among others.

Focused on engineering, the Indigenous Engineering Student Association (IESA) is a student-led group dedicated to helping Indigenous engineering students succeed during their studies and after graduation. The IESA is currently working in partnership with the Faculty of Engineering to ensure the sustainability of the group and the important work carried out to date. This partnership will allow the faculty to be better able to network its industry contacts directly with Indigenous students for engineering and student support services provided by the faculty to have a direct channel of communication with Aboriginal engineering students.

Being an Indigenous engineering student is extremely challenging, but support networks and the number of Indigenous engineering alumni at the U of A are growing, slowly changing the dynamics of the experience. The efforts of the University of Alberta and the Faculty of Engineering toward reconciliation are coming to fruition, and the long-term success of Indigenous students looks bright.

To further advance the faculty’s efforts, concrete steps should be taken in addition to these student supports to ensure that the faculty leads the way in Indigenous inclusion initiatives. A valuable and proactive first step in ensuring that the engineering environment is more welcoming to Indigenous students would be to incorporate artwork into engineering buildings, such as permanent Indigenous murals, to make the Aboriginal culture more visible to students in their daily lives. These small acts recognize the presence of Indigenous students on campus and aim to dismantle the stigma surrounding Indigenous students attending the university. The opportunity has always been there and the long-term benefits of an integrated cultural artwork far outweigh the monetary costs of production.

While Indigenous students face many of the challenges associated with earning an engineering degree, by creating a more inclusive and inviting environment, Indigenous students can feel valued and supported for the incredibly hard work they do. .

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