Medicine wheel shapes Aboriginal Access Studies

Two years ago, Chris Alexander didn’t have the prerequisites to begin his UBC education. That all changed after he enrolled in the Aboriginal Access Studies initiative at UBC Okanagan. Today, the 23-year-old has completed a variety of university-level courses and plans to pursue a degree in management.

Aboriginal Access Studies is in its second year of a three-year pilot that allows Aboriginal students to take university-level courses without the need to initially register in a degree program or undergo the standard admissions process. After starting their university studies through this alternative entry, students are better equipped — and qualified – to apply to degree programs.

“The access program gives you the requirements to get in,” says Alexander. “I would have had to go to college for two years, then come here. But this got me here right away.”

Aboriginal Access advisor Adrienne Vedan says key elements of the program are the extensive academic and personal support students receive from advisors and peer mentors, and the degree to which Aboriginal culture is incorporated into the entire approach.

“Students receive an Aboriginal perspective in English and math courses,” Vedan says, “and most of them take Indigenous Studies, so they receive a good foundation of courses that provide an Aboriginal perspective. We base the whole initiative on the medicine wheel’s teachings and the aspect of balance, stressing that the academic side is really important, but so are all the other aspects of yourself – your physical and social wellbeing.”

In addition to courses at UBC Okanagan, students also have an opportunity to take an Okanagan language course offered through the En’owkin Centre, an indigenous cultural, educational and creative arts institution in Penticton.

The goal this year is to enroll 30 students through Access Studies. Last year, 17 students participated – some just out of high school, others returning to school as mature students.

“This program is for a variety of students,” says Vedan. “A range of barriers might not have allowed them to attend post-secondary education – high school grades, not having their Grade 11 and 12 prerequisites, or even mature students who haven’t been in school for a long time and whose high school records don’t meet admission requirements. This opens up a number of doorways.

Jordan Coble was out of high school for five years before he decided to go back to school.

“I graduated in 2001, and didn’t really have any long-term goals,” Coble says, describing how when he was ready for post-secondary education he enrolled in regional college courses intent on completing prerequisites for university. A week into those classes, he learned about the new pilot at UBC Okanagan and made the move.

“The best part of the program was having a place to go, having someone to talk to, and learning how to study,” he says. “That made it a lot easier. Now I’m more focused on my career path.”

Taking first-year courses at UBC Okanagan, Coble has considered a future as a teacher or an editor. But lately his career thoughts are closer to home: filmmaking and video production.

“My dad has been in the movie business for years,” says Coble. “That’s where I want to go.” And so Coble is enrolling in media studies and English courses on the path to a Bachelor of Arts in English.

“The access program gave me a nice transition to the Arts program, and the courses I’ve chosen so far have opened doors for me,” says Coble.

Most of the 17 students in the program last year are applying to degree programs this year, but success isn’t entirely about students choosing this path.

“Maybe they come for a year and say it’s not for them, so they pursue education in a different manner,” says Dan Odenbach, Aboriginal program administrator. “We would consider that a success because these are students who may have never thought post-secondary was an option.

“We send the message that, no matter what, there are always options and the more education you have the more options you have. If this isn’t for them, we’ll work with them to find what is.”

“Let’s face it, whether you are Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, starting at university can be a pretty scary experience – it’s almost an overload, you’re inundated with a flood of information,” says Odenbach. “We want to assist students in getting over their initial fears so they can get on with their education.”