As the winter semester of the 2017-2018 academic year winds down, it is time to take stock of one of the most tumultuous college years ever experienced by faculty, staff and students. The five-week labour dispute that began on October 16 just six weeks into the fall semester resulted in more than 25,000 students province-wide withdrawing from their programs at the end of November (Rushowy, 2017). However, students enrolled in the new Personal Development for Indigenous Success (PDIS) Program, the first semester of the Pathways to Indigenous Empowerment (PIE) Program Ontario College Certificate Program (formerly known as the BEAR Program), all returned to class once the labour dispute ended. One student admitted that during the strike she felt on the verge of quitting but when she thought about how leaving would let her classmates down, she reconsidered. Her commitment to stay in the program and “make it through the year together with everyone else” speaks to the determination of our learners and our faculty to work together, to find ways to overcome challenges, and to achieve a 100% graduation rate in our first year of the PIE Program.
To follow through on the research findings outlined in the ONCAT 2015-36 report Building Empowerment, Attaining Rewards: The BEAR Research Report, the PIE Program was launched in fall 2017 with a cohort of five students. Success in the context of college programs can be gauged differently. For college administrators and managers, offering a one-year Ontario College Certificate program for five students represents a leap of faith (a deeply appreciated one) that acknowledges and accepts a significant loss in the first year of operation. For college faculty, the opportunity to work with five students represents a once-in-a-career chance to provide highly individualized, richly supported educational experiences where working one-to-one with students is the norm rather than the exception. For the PIE Program graduates, the chance to strengthen their academic skills, become familiar with the expectations and demands of college life, and embrace their Indigenous cultures in a close-knit, supportive environment has enabled them to feel confident and empowered in taking their next postsecondary steps towards exciting careers.
All PIE Program graduates have made plans to continue their post-secondary studies at Algonquin College. Four have applied to programs for the fall 2018 and one is applying to the Pre-Health Studies Academic Upgrading Program beginning in August 2018. The College’s investment in the first year of the PIE Program stands to yield approximately 25 semesters worth of tuition as these Indigenous learners pursue their career goals. Not only have these learners been empowered to follow new pathways, faculty members were given opportunities to share and build on Indigenous knowledge.
For Indigenous faculty members, the freedom to teach from a different pedagogical framework is rewarding and empowering; having traditional teachings and Indigenous knowledge validated in a mainstream institution represents a monumental shift in post-secondary education.
Most importantly, by choosing to offer the PIE Program in fall 2017, Algonquin College followed through on the promise made to Indigenous communities to make available an innovative preparatory program that embraces Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing. In launching the PIE Program, Algonquin College is acknowledging that the challenges Indigenous learners encounter in postsecondary institutions can buckle them at the knees before they even open their first textbook. In supporting the PIE Program, the College demonstrates that it is prepared to “do education differently” so that faculty and staff can provide the information, guidance, support, creativity and encouragement needed to overcome the obstacles that threaten to derail the most resolutely well-intentioned student.
As the PIE Program Coordinator and as the professor for the Foundations of Communication, Communication Skills and Career Development courses, the experience of working with the PIE Program students this year was profoundly enlightening. Despite intergenerational trauma, financial hardship, and physical and mental health issues, these determined learners worked diligently to meet course learning objectives to enrich their bundles; all are ready to take the next step on their journey.
This report outlines our journey in bringing the (BEAR) PIE Program to life, and the hope is that sufficient information has been included to support the development and implementation of a similar program in other institutions. Please feel free to contact Adele Yamada (email@example.com) for further details about the PIE Program. We are happy to tell our story and to share our knowledge.