Carla Marie Loewen, University of Manitoba
In 2009, University 1 (U1), a direct entry admission option into the University of Manitoba (UM), launched a peer mentor program for Indigenous students. At the time, there were few direct entry options for students, which meant the U1 academic advising team served approximately 6000 new students each year. Out of those 6000 students, more than 500 self-declared as Indigenous (First Nations, Métis, or Inuit), which was about 8.25% of the U1 population. Prior to 2009, there was no Indigenous-specific programming offered in U1. When an Indigenous academic advisor was hired in 2005, they were given the opportunity to envision what a peer mentor program for Indigenous students could look like.
After a few years of dreaming, discussion, idea bouncing, and collaboration with the Aboriginal Student Centre, Promoting Aboriginal Community Together (PACT) was launched. This program matches new Indigenous students with upper-level students that provide academic support, social support, and ongoing advice. The program also offers all members with activities that enhance their post-secondary experience. The initial vision for PACT won an Innovation Award in 2008 from the National Aboriginal Student Services Association (NASSA), who provided a $750 monetary award as a startup budget. Since then, the program has moved to the Indigenous Student Centre, been renamed as the Neechiwaken Indigenous Peer Mentor Program, and staff have researched whether participation in PACT helped members persist in their academic goals and/or whether peer mentoring as a student engagement strategy affected their sense of belonging to the university (Loewen, 2016).
As the developer and facilitator of the program, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to view firsthand the positive impact it has made. The notion of peer mentoring for Indigenous students has captured all aspects of my life, and I am truly passionate about the role I share in developing a thriving and positive student community where students do not have to feel like just a student number, but a member of a student community.
Neechiwaken is a Cree term that means “friend,” and the idea that program members would become friends became an integral component of the program’s vision statement early on. Since 2009, numerous friendships have been created, have grown, and have lasted throughout the students’ shared time on campus. As the program facilitator, I have had the pleasure to observe students begin their first year of university and been able to monitor their progress until graduation. Program members have gone on to be social workers, nurses, doctors, government workers, teachers, graduate students, community workers, and much more. The research reflected below shares why peer mentor programs for Indigenous/Native American students are important, and much of the research also relates the benefits of peer mentoring to other underrepresented student populations. The following sections relate the findings from the Loewen (2016) research based on PACT.
Benefits of Peer Mentoring
The Loewen (2016) study illustrates that Indigenous students who take part in a peer mentoring relationship have a better chance of successfully integrating into a post-secondary institution, because they are given the opportunity to meet with other Indigenous students they can relate to on a regular basis. This was demonstrated by research participants who saw peer mentoring as a way to make friends and get academic guidance. Having a mentor available to talk to about challenges, have as a friend, and socialize with gives new students a better chance at persisting, because they can feel like a part of their student community. Tinto (2010) supports this by explaining, “making friends and knowing people is important in gaining a sense of belonging” (p. 64), which is attributed to persistence.
Sense of belonging was consistently seen as important to the students interviewed for the study and can be connected to Astin’s (1984) theory of student development. For example, Astin proposed that a highly involved student is someone who studies a lot, spends time on campus, gets involved with student groups and interacts with professors. Astin (1999) also argued that students more willingly get involved if they identify with their environment. In Loewen’s (2016) research, this was supported by research participants who frequently mentioned how the peer support they got from one another helped them feel connected, which gave them a sense of familiarity on campus and provided a sense of belonging to the UM.
Astin (1999) also proposed that to achieve maximum student involvement, student personnel workers should take the opportunity to stimulate students to get more involved in student organizations, to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities, and to interact with new peer groups. Based on the benefits that participants related in their responses about peer mentoring, administrators, post-secondary educators, advisors, and student life offices should develop student programming for Indigenous students that helps them connect with their institutional environment (Loewen, 2016).
In addition, being able to identify with other Indigenous students on a regular basis is what emerged as the most important peer mentoring aspect to participants. PACT helped participants feel less alone and see that they were not the only ones to experience challenges or face worries. By joining PACT, participants were able to make new friends, find a common identity in one another, and make connections with students with similar interests or backgrounds. From the challenges participants experienced during their studies, the Loewen (2016) research shows that Indigenous students can benefit from programming that provides social connections and that peer mentoring is a feasible way to do this. Peer mentoring literature that highlighted social connections supports this conclusion. For example, Dennis, Phinney, and Chuateco (2005) explained, “Peer relationships are important in a number of outcomes among college students, such as sense of social identity, social adjustment, personal-emotional adjustment, and goal commitment” (p. 226).
In general, Loewen’s (2016) results suggest that peer mentor programs are effective at engaging Indigenous students in their academic journeys. Working closely with students as an advisor and as a program facilitator over the past 10 years, I have observed that students who get involved on campus earlier on tend to be more successful in their transition to university life. Because of the importance of getting involved on the success of students, I always tell students that attending university is not just about studying; it is also about becoming part of a community and part of their institution. And, by joining a supportive community when starting at the University of Manitoba, they will feel like they matter, because they most certainly do.
Implications of Research Findings
Dominant themes in the Loewen (2016) study showed that an Indigenous peer mentoring program can have a positive effect on persistence because it gives Indigenous students the opportunity to spend time with other Indigenous students, which in turn helps them feel more connected to the university as a whole. Therefore, institutions should consider implementing similar programs like Neechiwaken into their student engagement programming.
Another main theme was that Indigenous students see family and peer support as a critical aspect of being successful (Loewen, 2016), so institutions and programs should consider giving students the opportunity for family to visit the campus and be part of the university experience. This could include having family game nights, invitations to attend campus events, or invitations to cultural activities being offered on campus. This would allow the student to share their academic life with their families to instill a sense a pride amongst family members, give students the opportunity to show what they are doing, and in turn, give family members some assurance that their child’s academic goals are worthwhile. Family support was deemed an important aspect of persistence by Thompson, Johnson-Jennings, and Nitzarim (2013) who said that it “has consistently been documented to relate to a variety of educational outcomes, including adjustment to college, persistence, and well-being” (p. 220).
Peer mentoring programs should also include interactions with Indigenous staff for role modeling and should incorporate traditional knowledge with the use of Elders and participation in cultural activities. Rawana, Sieukaran, Nguyen, and Pitawanakwat (2015) called for the inclusion of cultural activities, because in their research about Canadian peer mentoring programs, it was found that “the majority of Aboriginal peer mentorship programs did not contain specific cultural activities or traditions” (p. 18). Therefore, opportunities for cultural learning should be included in Indigenous student peer mentor programming or otherwise.
Programming should be purposeful and have clear outcomes for why a program is being offered. Institutions should do more to promote Indigenous student peer relationships whether through peer mentoring, learning communities, or student council involvement (as examples) as peer relationships were consistently found to benefit students (Loewen, 2016). With this in mind, institutions should seek to create programming that does more than just get Indigenous students together. One example of intentional programming includes transition programs that increase the involvement of Indigenous first-year students as a way to help students persist from one year to another. This is in line with Berger and Milem (1999) who found that “early peer involvement appears to strengthen perceptions of institutional and social support and ultimately persistence” (p. 658).
Last, institutions have the responsibility of making all students feel like they belong. Johnson, Soldner, Leonard, and Alvarez (2007) state that “rather than expecting students to bear sole responsibility for success through their integration into existing institutional structures, sense of belonging illustrates the interplay between the individual and the institution” (p. 526). This means it is up to the institution to support student success; it should not be left to the student to have the sole responsibility of being successful and making meaning out of being a university student. And guiding and supporting someone who you want to see succeed, well, that is what friendship is all about. That is what Neechiwaken is all about. Miigwech.
Carla Marie Loewen
Indigenous Student Centre
University of Manitoba
Carla Loewen (Cree) is a student advisor at the Indigenous Student Centre at the University of Manitoba where she runs a transition and peer mentor program as part of her advising portfolio. She was the 2017 recipient of the Region 6 Tribal College Advisor Grant.
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Cite this article using APA style as: Loewen, C.M. (2018, June). We are friends: A Canadian indigenous peer mentor program’s journey from vision to reality. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]