Intercultural understanding vital to Indigenous students’ success

October 17, 2017
Doctor of Social Sciences graduate Dan Guinan

Dr. Dan Guinan is interested in genuine reconciliation on our campuses.

And that means making higher education more supportive and culturally inclusive of Indigenous students, with actions from administrative staff, professors and senior executives.

The Doctor of Social Sciences graduate examined the link between the social environment of Canadian post-secondary institutions and the success of Indigenous students.

He found that government policy in the last two decades has encouraged indigenization of public institutions. But a lack of knowledge and understanding among staff about Indigenous peoples, culture and history is hindering Indigenous students’ achievements.

“There has been a lot of work on indigenization in the realm of curriculum and gathering places, but they’re not changing the way people relate to one another,” Guinan says.

“Indigenous students may be affected by the attitudes and behaviours directed toward them by people in the microsystems of an institution, and by different cultural expectations.”

Guinan says despite slow improvements in areas such as income, the education gap has grown wider for Indigenous people. The most recent Statistics Canada figures show that the percentage-point gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons holding a bachelor’s degree or higher was 10.9 percent in 1981. This gap grew to 17.6 percent in 2006 and decreased slightly to 16.7 percent in 2011.

“It’s clear that academic success for Indigenous students is a complex issue that requires multifaceted, inclusive, culturally responsive, and engaging approaches,” he says. “We need to do better.”

Guinan understands the challenges and opportunities first hand. He started teaching science at Native Education College, a large, private non-profit college in Vancouver, in 1991. A trained biologist with Belgian and Irish roots, Guinan became the first non-Aboriginal president of the college in 2010. He has been working since to find out how to better support Indigenous students within the college and in other tertiary institutions.

“I wanted to do something that would be of benefit to the Aboriginal community,” he says.

For his doctoral research, Guinan conducted a case study at a regional university in British Columbia to find out more about how they support Indigenous students’ success. He conducted in-depth interviews with 21 instructors, student support staff and administrators.

He found no overt racism towards Indigenous students, but identified common themes among staff. A key finding was although the university in question had allocated significant resources to indigenization efforts, little activity was directed at changing social relations between Indigenous students and university employees. This left a gap in intercultural understanding.

Guinan found some employees interviewed favoured a melting pot approach to teaching and learning across campus that ignored cultural differences, while others felt they didn’t know how to provide education in way that would help Indigenous students.

“Institutional staff did not use intercultural skills to improve social relations with Indigenous students,” Guinan says. “There was little understanding of why reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is required.”

Guinan says that lack of intercultural understanding and initiative can make studying in higher education institutions difficult. Indigenous students can feel isolated, he says, or like they must assimilate culturally to earn their degree. Guinan says poor intercultural communication on behalf of university staff and instructors compounds other challenges Indigenous students may face.

“We have to learn more about Indigenous cultures so we can effectively teach people in that culture,” Guinan says.

To help with this transition, Guinan developed a social model to help higher education employees move from a position of bias to tolerance and, ultimately, to acceptance.

The model consists of teaching the social aspects of Indigenous world view, how culture is maintained, and how cultures interact. It includes an historical understanding of what culture is and how others have interrelated with Indigenous culture.

Guinan hopes that institutions will implement the four activities in his social model with staff to move the social environment toward greater Indigenous acceptance.

“We need to have both historical understanding and social understanding. How socially are we going to work together and what are the historical facts?” he says.

Guinan says that people who are not Indigenous and working at post-secondary institutions could be doing more to adapt themselves to give the education that’s required for Indigenous students to succeed. That, to him, is part of true reconciliation.

“We need to have discussions around what we are doing at post-secondary institutions and why we want reconciliation,” he says. “How do we work together and what are our objectives and values to move forward in the future?”

Closing the gap in educational attainment is the ultimate goal for Guinan. And, as he says, every social interaction counts.

This profile was developed with the assistance of the Research Support Fund and will be included in the forthcoming 2018 Research in Action publication featuring Royal Roads University faculty and student research.