By Charles Laird
(ANNews) – The Indigenous Foundational Learning program at Bow Valley College gives Indigenous learners the opportunity to improve their academic skills and prepare for work or further education. Beyond that, the program supports truth and reconciliation for learners and provides a safe environment for self-discovery and self-identity.
Students come into the program from a variety of backgrounds, different stages in life, and different life experiences, says Jennefer Rousseau, a high school-level humanities instructor a Bow Valley College.
“They have families. They have kids. Some have gone through the Foundational Learning program, and now they’re coming to high school. We also get some students who finished high school, took some time off, maybe have decided to change their career, and then realized they didn’t have the marks that they needed to get into their programs,” she says.
Shoshonie Smith Smith, a student working toward her high school diploma, describes her younger years as turbulent. “I was all over the place. I was held in the child welfare system for quite a while. So, that meant I moved around everywhere, constantly. I just left school completely when I was in about grade ten,” she says.
Like Smith Smith, many students’ goal is to overcome challenges and hurdles they’ve experienced in life. “I started drinking alcohol a lot. And I just started noticing that I wasn’t going anywhere. I was in the same spot. I did not want to live like that. I want to have a good life. I wanted an education,” she says.
Owen Roan, who is close to graduating from the program, also had a tough life of trauma and addictions. Currently in recovery, he’s working toward his high school diploma and a new life for himself. Roan reflects on his own experience and hopes that “other people can go down the same road that I’m on, because I actually learned to love life and learned to love myself.”
Roan is using this experience to take his educational journey even further. “I actually want to go into the social work program at Bow Valley College. And then, when I’m done, I want to go back to my community and become a counselor. I can share my journey and inspire others like me that they can overcome their addictions. If I can do it, then they can do it too.”
Joanna Tzavaras, an instructor with the Foundational Learning Program for Indigenous upgrading, identifies the goal for her students: “Education is their freedom, their freedom from poverty, their freedom from breaking the stigma of what Indigenous people have experienced, freedom of not being afraid of being out in the world.”
Both Rousseau and Tzavaras design their classes to put a heavy emphasis on Indigenous content, which includes Indigenous ways of knowing and being through mentorship from Elders and knowledge keepers.They believe that inviting community members and students to share their stories and experiences is vital to the educational journey.
Tzavaras starts her classes with a sharing circle. Learners can speak their truth and learn about each other’s stories. Through the sharing circle, they explore new ways of knowing.The students also speak their truth through class presentations and storytelling, both oral and written. The goal for students is to build and participate in a supportive community.
Rousseau says the Indigenous Learning Program’s unique learning environment creates a positive setting. “An environment of giving second chances is an Indigenous way of learning,” she says. “We are all about letting students do their best work and being their best self when they are ready.
“It is so important that our Indigenous students speak up and use their own voices, especially when we talk about imperialism, and we talk about residential schools. Speaking out in class and sharing their points of view, and being confident in knowing that they have support. This makes a huge difference.”
Shoshonie Smith Smith’s education at Bow Valley College has helped her experience her own Indigenous identity in new ways, “I have enjoyed learning about my culture, knowing the things that I know now. I’m still learning to this day. I don’t know everything, but I love knowing more about who I am as a Blackfoot person and Nakota Sioux person. It makes me feel very proud,” she says.