Helping Indigenous students succeed

October 11, 2014
Derik Joseph

Derik Joseph credits his parents for shaping who he is as a First Nations man learning and working in the mainstream education system.

“My father, a member of the Tl’azt’en First Nation, never knew what he could have turned out to be with an education, as that opportunity was taken away from him by being placed in the Lejac Residential School,” Joseph writes in his Royal Roads thesis, which explores Indigenous student perspectives on the post-secondary experience.

Joseph grew up with his mother, a descendent of European settlers and retired district principal of Aboriginal education, in Vancouver, but spent time with his father in a reserve community in Northern B.C. As part of his undergraduate degree, he lived and worked in Tl’azt’en First Nation, where he gained a deeper understanding of the community and traditional ways of communicating.

“I experienced the isolation of such remote, reserve life, including separation from Internet-based communication technologies – technologies that for many Canadians have become central to their daily interactions,” he recalls. “My career and life goals shifted drastically from this experience and I was motivated to find ways to improve the lack of communication that people living on many reserves have with the outside and to find opportunities for improving access to all levels of education and for the development of sustainable futures with organizations and industries.”

This goal led Joseph to the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), where he’s an advisor in Aboriginal Services. It also inspired him to attain his MA in Professional Communication (MAPC) from Royal Roads and pursue research that provides a better understanding of the personal, educational and cultural factors that need to be present in post-secondary institutions for Indigenous students to succeed.

Joseph’s thesis, entitled How Are the Aspirations of British Columbia Institute of Technology First Nations Students Defined by Their Indigenous Perspective?, focuses on the experiences of 10 BCIT graduates. Through extensive interviews, Joseph uncovered five major themes of weaknesses and strengths that exist in the life stories of these BCIT First Nations students, their cultures and their experiences in the education system: family history, First Nations identity, culture, work ethic and role models.

Joseph’s thesis is a captivating read that allows the students’ stories to be retold from a First Nations perspective. He created an ethical, culturally-appropriate data-gathering approach that allowed his participants to reveal their challenges and previously hidden factors determining their eventual success, says Dr. Virginia McKendry, Joseph’s thesis supervisor and head of the MAPC program.

“His research exemplifies the value that an Indigenist research methodology brings to answering the question of First Nations students’ success in an education system that they often find to be blind to their needs,” says McKendry. “His thesis was notable for how it privileged their stories directly in the text and remained focus on finding moments of strength, support, and personal breakthrough in their stories.”

By sharing the students’ narratives, Joseph allows the reader to form a bond with them. Here, some views from the students from How Are the Aspirations of British Columbia Institute of Technology First Nations Students Defined by Their Indigenous Perspective? that exemplify the five major themes and provide a glimpse into the challenges and triumphs of First Nations students.

Family history

When the students discuss their childhood, there are recurrent themes of the lasting effects of residential schools, being the first in a family to graduate, feeling the loss or gain of culture and the effects of addiction.

L’nu: “My mom and dad both are residential school survivors. My dad graduated from residential school at the age of eight and my mom was pulled out of school at the age of four. I’m one of 13 children but I actually was a high school dropout. I dropped out of school in ninth grade to help the family at that time. My mom was a self-confessed alcoholic and with that relationship growing up my dad was in and out because they’d get in a huge fight and she would kick him out.”

First Nations identity

Joseph discovered that family and cultural support are integral to the success of the students.

Matt: “Everyone is trying to figure out why no one is succeeding on the rez. Family are definitely an important part. Friends can bring you down, family can bring you down and at the end of the day the only person that is going to get you to where you are is yourself.”


Joseph writes that supports for First Nations students often include cultural gatherings with aboriginal staff, elders and students. He asked the students to define their cultural knowledge and discuss how this helped them navigate the societal system and achieve success.

Abby M: “From the little bit of knowledge I have, I did use smudging when I was studying. I always had cedar or sage bundles in my room to help ground me. I have done a sweat lodge once, I know BCIT does have a sweat lodge but I really wanted an all female one for my own comfort level. I do find that very grounding and spiritual for myself.”

Work ethic

Work ethic is essential to student success, writes Joseph, and students work harder for their goals and aspirations in post-secondary programs because of where they have come from and what they have learned.

Lilith: “Basically, I was just determined to make a new life for myself and it was contingent on my doing well in school. It’s just that work ethic; if you put in the time and have the right attitude and the brains you get it done. Well, I think I did quite well and it’s not due to just my program but also counselling that you get for free at BCIT.”

Role models

Upon graduation, First Nations people have the opportunity to become role models for others in their communities. In fact, it’s one of the most important things they can do, Joseph writes.

Anna: “Even in my class, when I graduated from my program, I’m pretty sure I was the only native person in that program that year. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at something, money doesn’t change things unless people want to change. The most important thing in culture is role models and that’s what’s going to change people.”

“It was an amazing experience,” Joseph says of the research process. “Seeing the students in their professional and cultural environments was very, very empowering. The trust that they showed me with their stories was extremely humbling.”

Joseph is keen on sharing his findings and helping post-secondary institutions support First Nations learners. On Oct. 27, he will be coming to Royal Roads to share his research and his insight on Indigenous research methods with undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Communication and Culture. In addition to sharing his research at RRU, he has presented at BCIT, the Colleges and Institutes Canada’s Serving Indigenous Learners and Communities Symposium and the World Indigenous People Conference on Education in Hawaii. Joseph is also exploring opportunities to do further research in the area. 

“The likelihood of success for First Nations students is increasing but improvements and adaptations are still needed to provide equitable access and success,” he says. “As educators, researchers, graduates and students, we can have a voice to that change.”