UBC's Aboriginal eMentoring program opens up health field
Every year, the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine holds a certain number of spots for incoming First Nations students, but these aren’t always filled. A group of researchers wants to change that. Through the innovative Aboriginal eMentoring B.C. program, the UBC team hopes to introduce more aboriginal youth to the wealth of career opportunities in the entire health-sciences field.
Sandra Jarvis-Selinger, associate director of UBC’s eHealth Strategy Office, told the Georgia Straight that technology is a vital tool for reaching young First Nations people throughout the province, who might not necessarily consider a job in health care as they approach the end of high school.
The eMentoring program is geared to aboriginal kids in grades 6 through 12. Those who participate get matched with a UBC health-sciences student (who could be studying anything from nursing to physical therapy), and from there they connect via an online platform that allows for safe, secure discussions and semistructured activities.
“If we talk to kids in Grade 12 about getting into medicine and they don’t have all their prerequisites in order, we’re really reaching them too late,” Jarvis-Selinger, who’s an assistant professor in the department of surgery, said in a phone interview. “We wanted to not just reach kids who could come out to UBC, and doing this online transcends geography. This is also about creating role models for First Nations students. If you’re living in a remote community and aren’t around a college or university, you have very little to draw on. Here, they ask questions like, ‘What was it like leaving Burns Lake to go to UBC? What’s it like working in dentistry?’ ”
Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research as a four-year study, the eMentoring program is now in its second year. Among the First Nations groups participating are the Ktunaxa Nation, Shuswap Nation, Sto:lo Nation, and Inter Tribal Health Authority.
The project utilizes Icouldbe.org, an online-mentoring platform based in New York City. There, it connects at-risk inner-city kids with adults working in a range of fields with the aim of encouraging teens to stay in school, plan for the future, and achieve their goals. Icouldbe allowed eMentoring to adapt its curriculum and interface to suit aboriginal youth. For instance, the platform uses traditional First Nations imagery and incorporates cultural elements such as the medicine wheel.
Once on the website, students might ask questions, watch interactive videos, or navigate to relevant websites. Interactions are all asynchronous, meaning mentors and mentees can log in to their Icouldbe accounts whenever they like and jump in right where they left off.
A key component of the program is anonymity. Participants utilize user names to protect their identity.
“It’s interesting what anonymity brings in on the positive side,” Jarvis-Selinger said. “What we’re seeing is people expressing themselves honestly. Youth can say all the things they like or do or are worried about, without having to worry about someone telling someone else. They feel like they can open up.”
What Jarvis-Selinger is most excited about, though, is how the program can open up a whole new world of opportunities to First Nations youth.
“Whether a student ever goes on to be a doctor or a nurse or a social worker means less than if they have the chance in Grade 12 to make that kind of decision,” Jarvis-Selinger said. “First Nations students are not getting that potential to make those choices for themselves. If this can help them say ‘I can do anything,’ then that’s a huge win. This is about giving people that potential.”