New scholarships offer increased financial support to Indigenous students

The new school year has ushered in advances in financial support for Aboriginal students, with the Senate approving both a new Centennial Scholars Major Entrance Award and the Musqueam First Nation Scholarship. 

The Centennial Award is valued at an annually renewable $40,000 over four years and is given to outstanding students from under-represented communities in Canada. The Musqueam First Nation Scholarship acknowledges outstanding Aboriginal students from the Musqueam Nation and is valued at up to $5,500 annually — it is also renewable for up to four years.

UBC hopes to support approximately 100 students a year through these scholarships, which are largely funded by anonymous donors to the university.

“What we were trying to do is support students from underrepresented student populations and Aboriginal students are one of those groups of students,” said Kate Ross, the associate vice-president of enrollment services and registrar. There are 1,388 Aboriginal students (up 0.5 per cent from 2014/15) out of a total 61,113 students at both UBC campuses.

“That was the idea — to reimagine our entrance awards and take the opportunity to rename them.”

Ross is also a member of the Centennial Scholars Award Committee, which decided upon and recommended the scholarships to the UBC Senate.

According to Ross, the approval of these scholarships was not an enactment of the government's promise to make the post-secondary education of Indigenous students possible, but an independent decision by UBC. According to the official Liberal campaign site, Trudeau's administration promises to invest $50 million in funding for Aboriginal students that are currently attending post-secondary institutions or are intending to attend but do not have the means. The government has yet to fully implement this plan.

“We certainly were having the conversation before the election. It's about bringing the right people together and starting to have these conversations,” said Ross. “That combination allows us to actually make a case for why we should be doing it.”

Linc Kesler, director of the First Nations House of Learning and senior advisor to the president on Aboriginal affairs, noted that since 2009, the university has worked on an “Aboriginal strategic plan” to provide adequate support to current and prospective Indigenous students. 

“In the first 100 years of the university, it wasn't a very welcoming place for Aboriginal people. I think there is a recognition that the university as a whole is in a different place [now] and thinking about those issues,” said Kesler. “It's an important development and it's not in any way trivial.”

Kesler also noted that the Centennial scholarships are an extension of the support systems already in place.

Financial support was already available to Aboriginal students prior to the introduction of the Centennial scholarship, albeit not specifically focused on Aboriginal students and often solely based on merit.

“An entrance award that is both need and merit based, and having a dedicated award for Aboriginal students, helps to make UBC a more attractive place to study,” said Kristen Harvey, the associate director of strategic Aboriginal involvement initiatives.

UBC intends to keep supporting Indigenous students not only through financial support, but also by providing academic support through advisors as well as numerous other programs. 

“I'm very happy with the increase in applications, so I'd say that's an indicator that it's been well received so far,” said Harvey. “I think we'll continue to receive an increase in applications.”

The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, due to be completed in the 2017/2018 academic year, is also intended to provide Aboriginal students — and the larger Indigenous community of the West Coast — access to records and other historical material.