Indigenous women embrace IT to unite remote region
University College of the North expands access to IT training in northern Manitoba
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Building better futures for a stronger North—as its vision statement notes, University College of the North is committed to the development of its region.
That’s why it’s launching InTeRN, a project to bring the digital economy into a remote, mostly indigenous community. With a holistic learning structure that enables hands-on experiences, the program welcomes indigenous women into the field of IT, providing students with training and career options, without having to leave the community that strengthens them.
- Conquering the digital divide
In Manitoba, only 2.8% of women in post-secondary institutions study computer or information science.
To start tilting the balance, University College of the North (UCN) created the Information Technology Readiness North (InTeRN) project, which expands access to an industry with growing demand and higher income possibilities. The InTeRN project is funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre.
UCN serves a widely dispersed population, spread out over northern Manitoba, where approximately 70% of its student population is indigenous. UCN spans two main campuses and 12 regional training centers—nine of them being in First Nations communities, which deliver customized courses to meet the specific needs of each community.
A career in IT only used to be possible by moving over 600 km away to Winnipeg. “Having to go down south is basically a culture shock for students. They leave behind all the social supports they’ve had their entire life,” relates Jenna Brown, project case manager for the InTeRN project at UCN. “Coming to our program, we wanted to do things differently. Students can’t be an individual learning on their own
and then leaving. It would not succeed that way.”
- A strength in community
“We built the program around the guiding principle of ‘wahkotowin.’
This is the Cree word for kinship, but it means more than family. It’s our bond to the community, to nature, and the land. This sense of connectedness is who we are, and our students need it to thrive,” says Brown. “The idea of being self-made is such a foreign concept to us. We are community‑made.”
Brown grew up in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, which has close to 6,000 members and almost 2,500 living on reserve in Northern Manitoba. The reserve is close to UCN The Pas, where the InTeRN project launches as a pilot during the 2021 fall semester.
“We have so many amazing women in this region, but opportunities are lacking. There are fewer resources and career choices,” explains Brown. “We see lack of support, teen pregnancy, and intergenerational trauma. So that definitely affects what women are doing. But we also see so much strength, resiliency, and resourcefulness and we want the program to tap into that.”
- Hands-on IT training
InTeRN does not follow a traditional education model. “It’s a work-integrated approach.
Students will be paid as interns and get involved in a business from the very first day. The curriculum is not the structure. The business is the structure,” explains William McBride, project consultant and IT educator at UCN.
The university partnered with Computers for Schools (C4S) to bring a refurbishment center into the community, allowing InTeRN participants to develop skills needed for entry-level IT jobs. C4S, a program funded by the government of Canada, extends the life of technology equipment, which is later donated to low-income students and non-profits.
“Learning IT out of context can be very challenging. Instead, our students will learn through real-life tasks. For example, when plugging a motherboard, we can start talking about input and output,” McBride continues. “You’re working hands-on and there will be an opportunity to break down the process and incorporate the theory.”
The program is based on competencies and outcomes. With less focus on traditional evaluation, InTeRN allows students to experience successes and get feedback daily. “When they’re working on the actual installation, configuration, or troubleshooting of equipment, they’ll be demonstrating every bit of the process and the instructor is there to guide them. I think it’s a healthier environment than leaving students on their own,” explains McBride.
- Sweetgrass: Holistic learning
To ensure the program would be successful in an indigenous community, UCN needed a holistic perspective.
“In most cases, academia focuses only on the mind. But for us, for these women, that would mean being totally out of balance.” tells Brown. “We wanted to bring that balance back. To support these women around their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects.”
UCN already had a model in place to achieve this vision: the Sweetgrass pedagogy. Created by Tara Manych, education director at UCN Kelsey Adult Learning Centre, Sweetgrass incorporates the traditions of oral storytelling as a personal growth pedagogy. “In Cree and other indigenous traditions, there are Seven Grandfather Teachings—wisdom, truth, humility, love, bravery, respect, and honesty,” relates Brown. “These are core values in our community, and we are weaving them into the program by relating each teaching to a soft skill and a digital skill.”
“We’re making it easier for students to bridge those connections between the real world, the spiritual world, and the digital world, by looking at things holistically” says Brown.
As part of this holistic approach, InTeRN also incorporates mentorship. “Having role models is important for these women, because they don’t see people like them in this industry,” relates Brown.
“I reached out to some amazing women across the world, indigenous women in IT who are CEOs, who are founders. They will be part of our program too, sharing their story, encouraging students, and providing ongoing mentorship,” Brown continues. “If our women see someone like them, they know: ‘If she who could do it, then I can do it too’.”
- An evolving program
The first generation of InTeRN will serve around a dozen students, all indigenous women of the northern Manitoba region.
As the program advances, it will welcome more students. “This time, we wanted to run the project 100% for women—indigenous women—who are even further underrepresented,” McBride relates. “We can’t just keep talking about getting women involved in IT. It has to be ingrained in the program; it has to be part of the structure.”
Because the first class runs as a pilot, there is room to change the program as needed. “We wanted a platform that could also grow and adapt as the project evolves,” says McBride. UCN deployed HPE Nimble Storage dHCI, a hyperconverged solution that is flexible and scalable. “We needed a platform for our virtual lab. The solution delivers not only the processing power, but also storage. It has everything we need.”
UCN serves remote communities, where weather and infrastructure conditions can cause frequent power outages. “In the event of a power failure or interruption, we want to make sure data is not lost. HPE Nimble Storage dHCI gives us a very reliable, very fast virtualized infrastructure solution,” explains McBride. The platform’s ease of use allows McBride and his team to focus on student experience.
“We want to make sure the platform is always up and running and available.” HPE InfoSight delivers AI-powered prediction and automated resolution of infrastructure issues. UCN also chose HPE Proactive Care 24x7 support to further ensure system availability at all times. “We know we have support when we need it, so it was worth the investment” McBride tells.
- Connected to the future
The platform runs NetLab, a software solution that allows students to access and control specialized equipment remotely, enabling a hands-on experience beyond the tools available at the campus lab.
UCN partnered with IT solution provider Powerland to deploy the HPE platform for its virtual lab, including a VMware® environment. To empower students with connectivity access at home, Powerland also donated internet sticks and USB devices, which connect to the internet via mobile networks.
“A reliable internet connection is not available in a lot of small communities in the North,” says McBride. “We’re targeting 2023 to have an affordable, high-speed internet solution in place for those communities. As we move forward, we could start to offer the InTeRN program in a remote format.”
UCN is working with other organizations to expand the InTeRN program. McBride shares some of the future plans, “the goal is to set up an active call center as well. By the end of the pilot, it would be two businesses running at the same time.”
- Community-based, community-owned
“We are trying to give the power back to the students. In the future, InTeRN graduates can become instructors, project coordinators, and managers for the business.
We’re starting the fire. Once it spreads, the community will own the program,” McBride concludes.
“We want to honor everyone’s own purpose, their own path, and their own walk,” Brown says. “InTeRN will help students grow as individuals, expand their career options, and contribute to the community in new ways.”
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