A junior university for Aboriginal health

- October 4, 2012

Students taking in a lesson at this year's AHSI junior university program.
Students taking in a lesson at this year's AHSI junior university program.

What now is known as Nova Scotia lies in Mi’kmaq territory and is home to 24,175 people of Aboriginal identity, 14,958 Status Indians, 13 First Nation communities and 34 reserves.

Kara Paul, program manager for Dalhousie’s Aboriginal Health Sciences Initiative (AHSI) is working with this community to increase interest in and access to high-quality education.

"Aboriginal youth experience barriers when striving for higher education,” says Paul. “One struggle in particular is [that] Aboriginal students coming from on-reserve communities have to overcome the reality that our K-12 education is underfunded by 20 to 30 per cent than the national average.”

Paul works with Dalhousie’s Faculties of Medicine, Health Professions and Dentistry to, “encourage more members of the Maritime aboriginal community to consider careers in medicine, dentistry and the health care professions.”

Creating pathways

This year marked the first annual AHSI junior-university program, a program intended to create pathways from communities into sciences or health sciences. While many Aboriginal students attend university, fewer focus in these areas.

The program brought students from across the province together to experience university classes in kinesiology, math, chemistry, audiology, occupational therapy, health sciences and medicine. In addition to taking in lectures, students were able to participate in group activities to practice what they had learned, whether in a lab setting or with props. Students in occupational therapy classes had a chance to experience the impact of compromised mobility, while during the medical lab they were able to try their hand at simulated guided surgery.

Karlee Johnson, 16, was one of the program’s students and is enthusiastic about the prospect of entering into health sciences.

“My father did research about Mi’kmaq medicine with a focus on the pa’ko’si (calla lilly) and how it can help with colds and the flu,” she said. “It was really exciting go on our medicine walk at Peggy’s Cove with the program and learn about the healing properties of the plants.”

Connecting knowledge

Johnson, an excited and interested student, is likely to be one of the 75 per cent of local aboriginals to complete high school and one of the 12 per cent to get a university degree.

“The program gave us a chance to meet other kids from across the province,” she said. “It gave us a boost and showed us about university life.”

Paul is hoping that other participants will feel the same way and that over time, more aboriginal youth will pursue university degrees and feel passionate about joining the workforce.

“One of the goals of the program was to try to connect indigenous knowledge with western health sciences to help students to picture themselves studying in these fields,” says Paul.

She adds many students who participated in this year’s program are keen to return as mentors for the next group of students.

“We’re trying to create pathways from communities into health sciences at Dalhousie and based on the feedback we’ve been getting — students are calling wanting to come back and new students are calling wanting to participate — we’re doing just that.”


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