Mohawk College program for Indigenous students aims to ‘demystify’ post-secondary education

Caroline Hill describes her school career as “wobbly”.

“I never thought I was going to go to college. I didn’t graduate from high school because I had so much anxiety,” she said.

But the Six Nations student eventually found her academic career path and, in April, graduated from Mohawk College’s Mental Health and Disability Certificate Program. She also holds a diploma in recreation therapy from the college.

Hill, now 25, credits her success in part to college success Pathfinder Program for Indigenous Youthan overnight experience that focuses on Indigenous culture, identity, leadership skills and pathways to post-secondary education, which she first joined in 2011 in her freshman year .

After being canceled in 2020 and hybridized in 2021 amid the pandemic, the Pathfinder program is back in person, with a dozen students set to start the program later this month.

“Students are kind of entering their first program for the first time,” said Amanda White, manager of Indigenous Student Services, which runs the program. “It gives them a bit of that college experience before they fully start their program. They can spend the night in the residence to experience what it is like to be away from home.

Six Aboriginal undergraduate students recently completed a similar program at McMaster University, an intensive eight-week program that aims to prepare undergraduates for graduate studies. Students participate in workshops and sessions on Indigenous knowledge and have the opportunity to pursue a research area of ​​interest with the guidance of a supervisor.

In Mohawk, program activities include medicine walks, elder visits, traditional cooking workshops and canoeing on the Grand River. One of the highlights of this year is a soapstone carving workshop.

“There’s homework and things like that for students to do, but it doesn’t feel like a traditional college class,” White said. “It feels more like natural ways of learning and doing things.”

This could include writing a journal entry or documenting their experience through photography or video.

The summer program is open to students between the ages of 17 and 21 who have graduated or are about to graduate from high school. By participating, they earn a college diploma or dual credit.

Traditional Aboriginal arts and crafts are part of Mohawk College's Pathfinder Aboriginal Youth Program.

“And that helps us build more of a circle of care to support students further along this educational journey,” White said.

Mohawk spokesman Bill Steinburg said the Pathfinder program is funded by the province and is free for participants.

Although the majority of students come from Six Nations, the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Hamilton and Brantford areas, the program also attracts students from further afield, White said. In the past, the program has attracted students from places like Barrie and Toronto and, this year, from the Northwest Territories.

About a decade after first joining the program, Hill returns this year as a mentor to support incoming students as they gain a culturally relevant taste of post-secondary life.

She describes the experience as “unexplainable”.

“I see all these new Pathfinders, and I kind of see myself and each of them,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to see them transform through the program.”

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