Enabling Indigenous Academic Success in a Pandemic

The Indigenous Student Success Cohort (ISSC) program at the University of Lethbridge (UofL), is a well-recognized, successful first-year program that provides a solid academic foundation and skill set to enable Indigenous students to succeed in their degree of choice. Key to the success of the ISSC is the bridging of Indigenous and Western cultures, the creation of community, a culturally relevant, highly interactive, learning and supportive environment, and attention to Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Learning (IWKL). When the Covid-19 Pandemic hit, schools and universities suddenly closed in March, and we scrambled to go online in a matter of days. This had a negative impact for many students, but particularly Indigenous students, many who had to move back to community and complex situations. There was little time to plan and there were many challenges in completing courses. It was stressful for all. It soon became evident that this was going to be the “new normal” for post-secondary education for the 20/21 academic year. As the Coordinator of the ISSC, I know first-hand the struggles and challenges Indigenous students experience with the Western way of learning, particularly in transitioning into mainstream university education at the best of times, so deciding how to deliver the entire program online was a deep concern.

Most ISSC students didn’t have a reliable laptop computer or internet so the first issue to address was technology. In Spring 2020, just before Covid hit, the UofL had partnered with the philanthropic Master Card Foundation (MCF) in a 5-year renewable commitment to increase Indigenous academic achievement across all levels of education and into first year university, with a specific focus on the ISSC program. As part of the commitment, students have their tuition fees and books paid for and are provided with a computer. However reliable connectivity for many still remains an issue.

In the ISSC, students take a core set of courses (mathematics, library science, writing and Quest for Success I) in the fall semester and a smaller core (Interdisciplinary studies and Quest for Success II and 2 or more mainstream electives from our approved list) in the spring semester. This enables the students to get a strong academic foundation in the first semester and then build on that foundation in the second semester while feathering into mainstream larger class sizes with the supports of the program.

One of the courses I teach in the program is the year-long course, Quest for Success (Q4S I & II). In the “Old Normal” we met Monday and Friday at noon over a meal. Sharing a meal is in keeping with Indigenous ways of building relationships and is a great way to disrupt barriers of shyness and difference. During the course we cover a variety of topics focused on enabling Indigenous academic success by bridging cultures and ways of knowing with mainstream education. This is a critically important course to the program, as it creates a community that is foundational to developing the supportive network needed as students continue through their degree. Creating that same environment online has been challenging this term and students have commented often that they feel disconnected from their cohort, the program, and university in general. “It’s just not how we are”, said one student. I hear often, “I can’t learn this way” and others have spoken to increasing anxiety in trying to work in the unfamiliar online space. “There are too many things to get around and I never know if I’m doing it right,” said one student. “Everything takes so long online,” is a common statement. With the pandemic situation now moving into its ninth month, it is beginning to feel like it will never end. For many it is discouraging, and it is getting harder to stay positive and focused and to stay the course.

Marathon runners have a term called “hitting the wall”, the point when you have no fuel left and you feel like you just can’t go on and if it is severe enough, you can’t finish. For many of us dedicated runners, this is devastating. Many students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are beginning to experience what I call Hitting the Pandemic Wall Syndrome. How do we get over this and make it to the finish line? is a central question. In the Q4S we have shared extensively in virtual talking circles (Figure 1) and have had numerous presentations and sessions from experts and elders on physical, mental, and spiritual health and wellness; about how to stay positive and develop our own tools for overcoming The Pandemic Wall Syndrome. The following are some of the outcomes of our Q4S sharing that might benefit others.

Figure 1: ISSC 0524 Quest for Success Class – Online: The New Normal

Understanding the New Normal
It takes time to adjust to new ways of working and being and it is important to acknowledge that your work may be impacted. While that doesn’t mean one should give up, letting go of high, and maybe unrealistic, expectations at this time can help us find balance and a new normal. Without our normal routines many have struggled with finding a new rhythm and are finding it difficult to focus and be motivated. This leads to frustration, anger, and anxiety, and we often take it out in negative ways. It is important to develop some sense of a “new normal” routine – get up at the same time every day, get ready, do your work at the same time, and finish as you normally would. Having a routine will give structure to what seems to be an endless amount of empty time and space. It will also give you a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. Try to focus on the immediate and have micro goals rather than looking too far into the future. If it seems never-ending then it is easy to get discouraged.

Stress and Resilience
We often think of stress as the enemy, but how we perceive our stress dictates how we experience that biologically. If we think stress is bad for us, then it can have negative consequences such as depression, anxiety, and even physical illness. If we think stress isn’t bad for us (i.e. that it motivates us) then we can use it to benefit us. Some call this resilience – changing how we perceive something. So, while we are in this Pandemic Crisis, think about how you might change your negative perceptions into more positive ones so you might build your own personal Resilience Toolbox.

Self-care – What does this mean?
Self-care is about taking care of our own mental and physical wellbeing. It means Cultivation of Self and is focused on nurturing our personal needs; allowing ourselves to relax, regenerate, and recharge in meaningful ways. Everyone knows what works for their own self-care but often we put that aside in our care for others, in the stress of the situation, or because we lack the energy. Often the attitude “what’s the point” prevails especially when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and are discouraged. But if we don’t care for ourselves, then we aren’t able to care well for others, or care about the things that are important to us.

I use the Medicine Wheel (MW), which is foundational and sacred to many Indigenous cultures, in much of my teaching as it can represent a multitude of concepts: the seasons, the four directions, personal well-being, the stages of life, et cetera. By its circular nature, the MW illustrates the continuity and inter-relatedness of its components. Figure 2 is a Self-care MW compiled from our talking circle conversations about the things we do for our own self-care. Beginning on the right and moving clockwise the components of self-care are physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.

Figure 2: Medicine Wheel of Self-care

Physical – Eating well and staying hydrated are key components of your physical well-being. Prioritize sleep. Making sure to get some exercise and fresh air every day. Walking is one of the best forms of exercise and it gets you out in nature breathing in fresh air which helps us calm down. In terms of your own workspace, think about light. Try to have your workspace in a location where there is good natural light. Natural light is easier on the eyes and makes us feel brighter and lighter.

Emotional – Recognize and accept that stress can make you emotional and everyone suffers from some level of anxiety and depression in stressful situations. The challenge becomes when anxiety and depression are prolonged and extreme, and they impact our relationships or our ability to perform our normal tasks. If that happens, then it is important to seek professional help such as your doctor for medical intervention, an elder or counsellor for someone to talk to, or a combination of both. Seeking professional help, is not a sign of weakness but rather it is being proactive about one’s self-care.

Intellectual – You might think being in school is intellectual enough, but it is important to have something outside of that. Having conversations with someone about important and Non-Covid and interesting topics or the latest book you read, or Netflix show you saw over a Zoom-coffee can be refreshing and intellectually stimulating – a breath of fresh air.

Spiritual – What is good for your soul and your inner being. What are the things unique to you that ground you but also lift your spirit? Perhaps they are smudging, praying, talking with elders, ceremony, etc. For me, it is running in the coulees. I love the beauty of nature, the animals, the river, and the fresh air. I feel grounded to Mother Earth, the Creator and my inner self where I can think and reflect. I call it running meditation. It is important to find your “thing” that fulfills you spiritually.

Building Your Resilience Toolbox
Each person’s toolbox will be different because we are each unique. Sometimes we need only one tool to handle a situation and other times we might need the whole set before we find one that works. Some key tools for your toolbox are:

Figure 3: A Resilience Tool Box

a) Respect your mental health. We each have different responses depending on where we are in our own mental health. The key is to let go of things you can’t control. Maintain an optimistic outlook. We all know the adage “every cloud has a silver lining”. Can you turn a negative into a positive? Practice the attitude of gratitude and joy through laughter. We often hear, “laughter is the best medicine”. It is true. Take breaks during the day or when you are feeling stressed and just breathe. Breathing is one way to reset our anxiety.

b) Create social connections. Develop a strong supportive network of friends, family, and cohorts. People who are experiencing the same situation or who have been through something similar are valuable resources. Knowing that we are not the only one who feels a particular way is helpful as it normalizes our feelings. A student in the ISSC said in a sharing circle, “It makes me feel better to know I’m not the only one who feels this way, not that I want anyone to feel this way. It’s just helpful to know I’m not the only one”.

c) Make every day meaningful. At the end of each day, review your accomplishments and then set your priorities for the following day. Sometimes lists are beneficial but don’t make them so long that they are daunting. Address concerns about deadlines and deliverables early so that you aren’t stressed. The news and social media can be great sources of stress as they tend to sensationalize the news and report more on the negative than the positive. This can be a great source of anxiety for many people. Try to minimize the number of times you engage with the news and social media including responding to emails.

d) Set boundaries. It is important to make a distinction between school and the rest of your life. Take time away from school. Celebrate successes and acknowledge your efforts, even if they seem small. Be proactive; don’t ignore issues as they can get out of control quickly, and know that your situation can improve if you actively put energy and attention into it.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: Practice self-compassion. It is a difficult time and being kind to yourself will go a long way to handling the challenges we are all facing. We will reach the finish line.