Empowering Indigenous Learners Through Education – Igniting Their Dreams
Native Education College Where Learners Become Leaders
Native Education College Where Learners Become Leaders
For many Indigenous learners, Native Education College has given them something even better than a degree: it has ignited their dreams.
For the past 55 years, NEC has become a springboard for Indigenous learners, offering in equal measure academics and holistic learning that respects their spiritual and cultural needs.
“Everyone has a dream, and a goal for themselves, but they often don't know where to get on the pathway to successful journeys,” said NEC president Tammy Harkey, a Musqueam Indian Band member. “And that is one of the things that we are recognized here for—that we look at the holistic well-being of the learner and we help them ignite their dreams.”
NEC focuses on inviting Indigenous learners to “bring their whole selves into the learning environment,” Harkey said, “and not asking them to compromise or leave parts of their selves at the door, which typically happens to an Indigenous learner when they enter a Western classroom.”
Besides academics, the college gives equal weight to the connection to identity, culture, ceremony—an equation that has helped to bring peace to many of their learners.
“We’re trying to retain that uniqueness and not relinquish it,” Harkey said. “Our success is built around that uniqueness which honours the holistic well-being of each and every learner and recognizing that those learners come from families; and those families are situated in unique First Nation communities across the province.”
NEC Management Team: From left to right - Amanda Kai (VP, Strategic Innovation, People & Culture), Nancy Xue (VP, Finance & Enrolments), Tammy Harkey (President), Tamara Starblanket (VP, Academic).
Serving a Distinct Need
NEC serves a distinct demographic: a vulnerable population that may have suffered trauma or negative experiences in elementary and high school and “needs a place to sort of rebuild themselves,” Harkey said. “It’s a little bit of a sad story that they often don’t feel human,” she said. “That’s a really powerful statement to say, ‘come to the door, you don’t have that basic right to be perceived and seen and treated like a human being.’”
As such, NEC’s curriculum focuses on the specific needs of First Nations. On their first day, learners are offered a traditional protocol and welcome ceremony at the Longhouse – by name and nation so they know who they are and where they came from.
Harkey said this “puts out a shared responsibility of our commitment to honour that person as they come through the doors.”
Support services are also available, including a meal program, cultural coordinator, Elders in Residents, counsellors, and a spirit room where learners can access traditional medicines and protocols.
All of this helps to ignite the education journey – and break a cycle persistent among First Nations learners. Harkey, for instance, was the first in her family to go to post-secondary after she enrolled at NEC for the Early Childhood Education program. It wasn’t an option for her mother, a residential school survivor, but her daughters are now both PhD candidates.
A significant number of other NEC learners have transferred to post-secondary institutions, taking up careers in law or becoming chiefs.
Powerful alumni include Melanie Mark, B.C.’s first Indigenous female Member of the Legislative Assembly and Tamara Starblanket, a lawyer and author of her forthcoming book: Suffer the Little Children – Genocide: Indigenous Nations in the Canadian State.
“That’s the immediate ripple effect of our community and family success at the NEC,” Harkey said. “But it also creates role models in community so other women can reach out to humans like myself or Tamara Starblanket or others that are out there.”
NEC’s goal is to support the advancement of learners and build capacity so the nations themselves can be self-governing, training their members to fulfill the labor market within their own communities.
Times are Changing
Although NEC has been self-funded for 55 years, through various fundraising efforts and grant writing, it is now in transition as it seeks to modernize its campus and technology and become more sustainable.
“We try to make sure our Indigenous learners have equal access to an equal playing field as their non-Indigenous counterparts but one look at our campus and you realize we’re working with some quite outdated resources,” Harkey said.
NEC Joins BCNET Membership
NEC joined BCNET becoming a new member, which provides them access to a catalogue of member-centric services in information and educational technology, enterprise resource planning, advanced networks, cybersecurity and procurement services. Information sharing is another big driver.
Bala Kathiresan, BCNET’s president and CEO, said bringing NEC into the fold create value to all its members.
“By welcoming NEC as a participant in the higher education and research community in B.C., everyone benefits,” he said. “It opens access to a powerful learning community of institutions big and small with unique skillsets that can learn from one another.”
Harkey is excited about the potential advantages but notes NEC’s original mandate will drive their way forward.
“Holding on to what's most dear to our elders and our knowledge-keepers is that the transfer of that identity and knowing who we are and where we come from.”