‘We are here’: Helping Indigenous university students thrive

University of Regina initiative supports the transition to campus life

A first-year theater course at the University of Regina awakened in Skyler a passion for the performing arts.

Not only has the nêhiyawak student, now in his fourth year, chosen to pursue a degree in media and performance—he wrote, directed and acted in a play that became a blockbuster production at Regina’s Globe Theatre.

“He came out of his shell as a result of Theatre 100,” says Kevin Bolen, the university’s director of student success. “It opened up the world for him.”

Skyler enrolled in the theatre course as part of the university’s nitôncipâmin omâ (“we are here”) Student Success Program, designed to help Indigenous students adjust to and thrive in their first year of university.

“All students struggle getting through their first year,” Bolen explains. “Our goal is simply to support Indigenous students through that transition, so they can avail themselves of opportunities at the university and beyond.”

And the program works. Since it launched in 2010, around 76% of participants advanced to their second year of studies, a rate “far in excess of Indigenous learners who do not receive the supplementary supports offered through omâ,” Bolen says.

With a dual focus on academics and culture, the program is organized in yearly cohorts of about 25 students. Participants take core courses together and are shadowed by an omâ facilitator who also attends the classes in order to provide superior academic support.

To meet the students’ spiritual and cultural needs, an Elder, or kokum (grandmother) as she’s called, is available to meet with students. Through the ta-tawâw Student Centre, omâ students are invited to attend around 250 cultural events per year—tee pee raising, feast, smudging, beading, art and round dance.

“There is a focus on culture and placing value on tradition and traditional ways of knowing,” says Bolen.

Thanks to funding from donors, the omâ Program is available to Indigenous students at the U of R. In 2020, Enbridge made a six-year commitment to the program, and will contribute $25,000 per year through 2025 to help omâ students thrive.

“For these students, once they develop skills, the world opens up for them,” Bolen continues.

More than individual successes, the omâ Program has resulted in graduates inspiring younger generations to take part, too.

“Within Indigenous communities, getting that first Indigenous learner to succeed can change an entire family,” Bolen says.

Once they join omâ, the students become aware of other opportunities—paid summer internships, funding to attend conferences, leadership and employment opportunities.

The program’s name is apt. nitôncipâmin omâ—“we are here”—delivers a strong message that Indigenous students belong at university.

(TOP PHOTO: For more than a decade, the University of Regina's nitôncipâmin omâ (“we are here”) Student Success Program has helped Indigenous students move on to their second year of post-secondary studies.)