A program for Aboriginal students transitioning to post-secondary studies will once again be available at Simon Fraser University. The decision to reinstate the program in the coming semester followed an outcry from university staff, faculty, and students when it was cancelled last spring due to declining enrolment.
The interim Aboriginal University Preparation Program for students affected by the cancellation of the earlier program will be overseen by the faculty of arts and social sciences.
“I think we were all very interested and keen in allowing a transition, [and] at least having a kind of continuation despite this hiatus,” said Bettina Cenerelli, who is responsible for the restart of the program.
The interim program is being piloted by a steering committee while the vice-president academic office is undertaking a simultaneous review to determine a successful model for transition programming at the university.
The university abruptly cancelled the original Aboriginal University Transition Program without warning to students and staff in April. At the time, vice-president academic Peter Keller told The Peak that the decision was due to declining enrolment with only five students who attended in the preparation program that year.
A petition by faculty and staff, which gathered a total of 885 signatures, called on the university to immediately reinstate the program for the fall semester, in addition to strengthening the program, boosting recruitment efforts, and offering free tuition to Indigenous students.
SFU made the announcement in August that the faculty of arts and social sciences would immediately be tasked with the program pilot. The first session will launch in the spring semester, though the faculty did attempt to reinstate the program for its intended start that fall.
“We did try, we simply could not get the instructors and the supports necessary for the students in place,” explained Catherine Murray, an associate dean in the faculty of arts and social sciences. “It just simply wasn’t possible.”
The students affected by the cancellation of the fall session were offered other supports, according to Murray.
The interim program now located in a faculty will guarantee admission for students who achieve the necessary grade point average, which was not possible under the former program housed in continuing education. The students will also be under conditional admission which means they will receive the same benefits as any other student enrolled at the school including the transit pass and access to other student services.
“We may need some additional access to counselling and other additional services because these are non-traditional students in some cases. Some may have completed high school, some may not, some may be in families struggling with the residential school trauma,” Murray added. “We are staying faithful to Aboriginal-led and inspired programming.”
The cohort will have a dedicated elder in residence to provide guidance as students progress through the program. The advisory process for the program has been modeled on a core recommendation of the SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council which called for the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in decision-making.
The majority of the people on the steering committee are Indigenous, Murray noted.
The faculty also recognizes that costs do represent a significant barrier for many considering the program and it is something which will need to be addressed. However, Murray added that the faculty is not able to change tuition policy at the university to make the program free for Indigenous students.
“I think it is a very careful question of redistributed justice that needs to be had, and that conversation will be had, but we can’t preempt it,” she said. The program instead offers the opportunity for a work internship to recoup some of the costs.
The interim program is currently recruiting students and intends to have its first cohort start in January.
“Students are in contact with us, so we do respond even now to a current and existing need,” noted Cenerelli.