5 Key Tips for Aboriginal Students Transitioning to Post-Secondary Studies

Bryan Harn

Bryan Harn

According to Statistic Canada’s 2013 report on the Education Attainment of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, more than 4 in 10 First Nations people aged 25 - 64 have some sort of post-secondary qualification. Bryan Harn is one of them.

At the age of 17 Bryan left his community of Eel River Bar First Nation to pursue post-secondary education at the University of New Brunswick (UNB).

“While attending UNB, I met new friends, met my beautiful wife, Debbie, and challenged myself in ways I never had before,” said Bryan. “While I can reflect on many happy moments and milestones, I also remember the homesickness, the loneliness, and at least 6-7 specific times where I felt like quitting.”

From 2010 - 2013 Bryan took on the role of Aboriginal Recruitment Officer at the Mi’kmaq – Maliseet Institute at UNB. During this time, he used his personal experience to help other students navigate the transitional process from living in a small community to residing and studying in a much larger urban area.

Bryan has learned a lot from this experience and offers some key tips on how to make the leap from your community to studying at a post-secondary institution go as smoothly as possible.


#1: Realize What You Are Getting Yourself Into – Treat the Decision with Respect

“I must confess that I am not a very spiritual person,” said Bryan, “but having spoken with key Elders in my life, their words have helped me to realize how important it is to our ancestors that we take advantage of the educational opportunities that we now, more than ever, have access to.”

Look at post-secondary education as an opportunity that not everyone gets and let those thoughts inspire you to make the most of it. This is your chance to prove yourself and fulfill your potential.


#2: Identify Your Support System

No one can tackle any challenge or journey alone. There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking for support during the most challenging times of your academic career. Even if you think you won’t need them, utilizing a support system can keep you directed towards success.

“I realize how lucky I am,” said Bryan. “When I decided to go to University, I had a lot of support from family – both immediate and extended – who prioritized education and pushed me to succeed. I realize that not everybody is lucky enough to have these supports in their families, but I know that most have supportive friends, coworkers, bosses, and community members that they can lean on.”

“Basically, find that support in your life and lean on them. Well-placed phone calls or coffee dates can keep you grounded throughout your University or Community College experience.”


#3: Find Aboriginal-specific Supports and Services

Many post-secondary institutions have realized how important it is to set up a friendly ‘landing pad’ for Aboriginal students. These resources are in place to help connect you to programs and services, such as Transition Years, that are set up to help you succeed. 

“Most of my crises took place in the first few months of University when I was missing my community,” said Bryan. “Once a friend of mine told me about UNB’s Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Institute, I was connected to many other Aboriginal students going through the same homesickness and loneliness that I was facing, and Aboriginal program coordinators who believed in me when I needed it. Connect to the wider Aboriginal community and you will unlock this assistance, as well.”

A lot of resources are there to help you along your journey. Don’t be afraid to ask around and search them out - they are free and can help you through the toughest of times.


#4: Plan to Devote Some Time to Hobbies

Most post-secondary Aboriginal students will likely be moving to a much larger place than their home community. For Bryan, connecting with people who had similar interests allowed him to make new friends and lifelong memories.

“Having played guitar in a small high school, there were only so many people I could jam with regularly,” said Bryan. “Moving to Fredericton, there were so many more people to form bands with and more gigs to play at bigger venues. If you don’t play music, join a campus club, join an intramural league, join a gym, or take part in an activist group. These activities will help you to relieve some stress and make some memories that’ll last you a lifetime. Don’t be scared of the experience – embrace it!”


#5: Budget Your Cash and Apply for Scholarships & Bursaries

“In order to make ends meet while you’re focusing on your schoolwork, you need to know what money you have coming in every month and what money you’ll have going out,” said Bryan. 

There are many budgeting programs out there - https://www.mint.com/ is very simple to use. You may not be the type to do your budgeting monthly but be sure to do it at least once before you go away so that you can have a rough estimate of where your money is going. 

In addition, Aboriginal-specific scholarships and bursaries are numerous and they can also help ease the financial tension.

“Working with other Aboriginal Support workers, I’ve helped compile a current list of Aboriginal-specific scholarships and bursaries that can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/279126265431829/,” said Bryan. “Use this as a starting point and realize that many of these awards don’t get anywhere near the amount of applicants that they account for. You owe it to yourself to pick a few and devote some time and energy to applying.”

Bryans’s final piece of advice is this, “Overall, packing up your life to chase a University Degree or Community College Certificate is one of the best experiences you can have. Keep your head up and stay open to opportunities in whatever form they may take. The important people in your life will be there to see you succeed and will be there to share in the good times and the bad. Don’t forget to look for support and help from those around you, the journey may seem daunting but you are not alone.”