EPC student gets sneak peek at university life through Verna J. Kirkness Program

Gavin Douglas, a Grade 11 student at Edwin Parr Composite (EPC) School in Athabasca, got a unique glimpse of what university life might be like, by spending a week in May at the University of Saskatchewan through the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Education Program.

The Verna J. Kirkness Program addresses the under-representation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) students at Canadian universities, including the number of FNMI students graduating from science and engineering programs. To do this, it offers scholarships to FNMI students in Grade 11, to spend a week at a Canadian university interacting with scientists, meeting academic role models, learning about the support systems available on campus, and experiencing the excitement of doing research.

Gavin, who is Métis, successfully applied to attend the College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. He learned of the opportunity through Alma Swan, FNMI liaison worker at EPC. “She thought that even if I just go for the experience, it’d be a great experience,” Gavin said. “I decided sure, why not? Let’s try it out.”

It turned out to be a great decision.

“I totally recommend it,” Gavin said. “It really does change you, just going there and meeting everyone, because it's an experience like you’ll probably never have at this age. It changes your future, and it just opens you up to new ideas. I really loved it.”

Gavin was one of 10 students who attended the University of Saskatchewan from May 8-12 through the Verna J. Kirkness Program. He said their common indigenous backgrounds led to an immediate feeling of kinship.

“Having something in common made it really easy for us all to talk and get to know each other – that was a nice thing,” he said. “They felt like family right there when you met them. We have something in common, and then when we start talking, we have a lot more in common.”

While 10 students took part, the program assigns only two to each faculty to maximize their interaction with professors and other role models.

“You’re more in depth with your teachers; you talk more face to face,” Gavin explained. “You’re always doing activities, so you're always asking questions of ‘How do I do this?’ and ‘How can I improve this?’ They’re always right there telling you how you keep going and how to do better.”

The Verna J. Kirkness Program is named for the Cree scholar, educator, author and member of the Order of Canada who took time to interact with all the students participating in the program. “She’s a lovely lady,” Gavin said. “It was great to see that she actually comes out and meets you. She’s got a great sense of humour and she's very enthusiastic towards the program. She's great to talk to and she's really smart.”

Gavin said that prior to his experience at the University of Saskatchewan, he was considering studying law after graduation. “But after going through this program and meeting all the professors and doing all the labs,” he said, “it actually split me and now I don't know which one I want, either kinesiology or law school.”

However, he added that because the Verna J. Kirkness Program targets Grade 11 students, he has time to consider all his options. “Doing it in Grade 11 is really good because I've still got this year ahead of me that I can plan to possibly do one of the programs that you need,” he explained.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Verna J. Kirkness Program, Gavin said, is simply getting exposure to what university may be like. Students got to stay in dorms, tour the campus and learn about the services offered to students. “Even if you may not go to university in the future, it's just kind of an eye-opener,” he said. “It gives you a perspective on what it might be like. Having this program encourages more First Nations people, and not having to go through more of a troubling time when you just walk in. You’ll already have a sense there. It clears up what university life might be like, and it also clears their vision of what they might want to pursue in the future.

“It's a great program and if the opportunity ever comes up to you, jump on it.”

For more information on the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Education Program, visit