Bursaries keep talent growing in Indigenous health

Kathleen Harris’ path to UBC begins with the story of one little boy.

She met him at a First Nations school where she volunteered by spending quality, one-on-one time with primary children who seemed to indicate that something in their life was affecting their behaviour at school.

As she talked with children, parents and Elders at the school, she learned that the children’s parents did not seem confident giving help with homework.

“This is understandable, knowing the history of colonialism and experiences of residential schools. If parents don’t have confidence in their own educational abilities, it’s difficult for them to feel confident supporting their children’s school work,” says Kathleen. “It’s a lose/lose situation because research suggests that children learn best from the people they are most attached to.”

“One day, I was shocked to learn that a boy I was working with was taken away from his family and sent to a different village. People at the school seemed upset but uncomfortable talking about it,” says Kathleen. “It just seemed so wrong. The boy seemed so together. He was wonderful.”

To help support parents and families in place in their home communities, Kathleen is pursuing doctoral studies focused on using traditional healing approaches for intergenerational trauma healing for parents and families whose situations have involved them with the child welfare system.

“From my learning place, that’s what children most need,” says Kathleen, who lives on the traditional Snaw-naw-as territory in Parksville and works with the Nuu-chah-nult Nations.

To deepen her understanding of health and community development in Indigenous communities, Kathleen is participating in the UBC Certificate in Aboriginal Health and Community Administration, which was developed in consultation with Indigenous communities by the UBC Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health and UBC Extended Learning.

When students of the certificate program meet at UBC’s Vancouver campus five times a year, elected band council members sit next to youth program leaders, who sit next to health directors and community volunteers—each sharing stories steeped in experience.

“We get together and hear that other communities are going through similar struggles and we hear what other communities are doing. This is empowering and good learning,” says Kathleen, a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in Nursing (public health and advanced practice leadership).

Part-way through the year, Kathleen was one of nine students to receive a bursary funded by donors Lindsay and Elizabeth Gordon as part of their support for the UBC Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health, which is dedicated to advancing Indigenous people’s health through education, innovative thinking, research, and traditional practice.

“My wife Elizabeth and I have always believed in the power of education and in the dreams of students, who have tremendous potential to improve the health of Indigenous communities,” says Lindsay Gordon. “We hope our investment and partnership with UBC will help them on their path.”

“I was very thrilled to receive the bursary because I honestly could not have continued the program if I needed to pay for the full tuition myself,” says Kathleen, a full-time PhD student and single mother of two children. “I really wanted to finish, especially because of the relationship that develops with the other students.”

The certificate program has some attrition. This year, 21 students started in January, and by September, five had dropped out due to loss of funding, medical issues or work overload. The online course assignments and discussions take time to complete, plus expenses add up for the five weekend sessions in Vancouver.

“Many students come from far away,” says Kathleen. “Bands do the best they can to support them, but it’s a challenge.”

The certificate program is important to Kathleen because she values the learning that comes from being with the other students who share her passion for supporting health and community development within First Nations communities.

“So many people are doing absolutely amazing and beautiful work at the ground-level, but there’s so much disconnect to people at the policy and upper leadership levels. That’s what I see,” says Kathleen. “I want to take a leadership role to advance the voice of First Nations and Indigenous communities.”