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Dal report considers how to improve Aboriginal and Black/African‑Canadian student access and retention

- November 26, 2015

Kevin Hewitt and Amy Bombay, authors of the Report from the Committee on Aboriginal and Black/African Canadian Student Access and Retention. (Matt Reeder photos)
Kevin Hewitt and Amy Bombay, authors of the Report from the Committee on Aboriginal and Black/African Canadian Student Access and Retention. (Matt Reeder photos)

While Dalhousie has experienced an increase in the number of self-identified Aboriginal and Black/African-Canadian students attending the university in recent years, these groups collectively still make up only about 2 per cent of Dalhousie’s more than 18,000 students, well below the 4-to-5 per cent that they represent as part of Canada’s total population.

The Report from the Committee on Aboriginal and Black/African Canadian Student Access and Retention, commissioned by the Provost’s Office and led by Kevin Hewitt and Amy Bombay, was completed last month and looks at strategies aimed at boosting the pool of students in these populations to 8 per cent of the overall student body.

Echoing some of the recommendations of the Breaking Barriers report of 1989 and the Aboriginal Student Success report of 2011, and following extensive consultation, including focus groups and the first comprehensive survey of these students, the report makes 23 recommendations — from changes to the structure and funding of scholarships to providing additional non-financial supports — aimed at boosting the pool of students in these populations to eight per cent of the overall student body.

“What we’re suggesting is that financial support for these groups be protected and tied to other types of support for those who need it,” says Dr. Hewitt, professor in the Department of Physics and Atmosphere Science, currently acting chair of Senate and co-chair of the 22-person committee behind the report, together with Dr. Bombay, Nursing/Psychiatry professor.

Some of the report’s recommendations have been adopted already, while others require a broader process of consultation across the university, says Carolyn Watters, Dal’s provost and vice-president academic.

“The next stage is to engage in consultation and discussion, both through Senate and more broadly,” says Dr. Watters. ”The recommendations involve engagement across campus from Faculties and students to the Registrar’s Office and Student Services. “We want this report to be widely known. We want people to be talking about it. We want to make positive changes.”

Recognizing different needs


One of the report’s main observations is that the university’s current system of supports and scholarships often puts students from the two groups together. The authors suggest examining current programming and policies to ensure that they consider the “large variation both between, and within, these two diverse cultural groups.” To that end, the report recommends that scholarships and supports for the two groups be treated separately. It further recommends differentiating the scholarships to target students from this province (Mi’kmaq/Maliseet and African Nova Scotians) separately from scholarships for African-Canadian and Aboriginal individuals from Canada nationally, which may enhance their attraction to Dalhousie.

“When we looked at our student population, we saw that we had First Nations students from other backgrounds and parts of the country,” says Dr. Bombay, stressing the need to recognize within-group diversity. “Some of the feedback we got was that, ‘we don’t even know if this is for us or just for Mi’kmaq students.’”

In addition to increases in funding, the committee suggests scholars be selected , based on a number of factors, including whether an applicant is from a rural or urban area, is the first in their family to pursue post-secondary studies, and is in financial need.

Progress through collaboration


Presentations, discussions, and consultations with different stakeholders across the university in the weeks ahead will help determine the path forward on these issues. A range of options will be explored, including the recommendation to increase fundraising opportunities, such as  “promise” scholarships for middle- and high-school students.

Anne Forestall, acting vice-provost of student affairs, is working to move forward on the recommendation that the university set up an Aboriginal student-support centre and advisor role similar to the existing Black Student Advising Centre. “I think we have a wonderful opportunity here to make the university more welcoming to our Aboriginal and Black/African-Canadian learners,” she says.

For more information on the committee’s recommendations, read the full report here.


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