College working to enhance co-op opportunities for Indigenous learners

Jewell Gillies

How can Okanagan College enhance support for Indigenous students stepping into co-op work terms with employers? And in turn, how can OC better assist employers looking to hire students and set them up for success during their time in the workforce?

These are just two of many questions inspiring Jewell Gillies as she consults with students, employers, other post-secondary institutions and Indigenous community members in the region and beyond as part of a 15-month long research project.

“This project delves into many aspects of co-operative education or work-integrated learning, with the goal of better understanding Indigenous students’ experiences, what their questions and concerns are,” she explains. “These conversations with students and community are invaluable – they are helping to shape recommendations for how we can better serve Indigenous students and our employer partners.”

Gillies is drawing on years of experience in supporting Indigenous learners in post-secondary. 

She’s worked with the College since 2017 as an Aboriginal Transitions Planner. The service improvement project finds her currently supporting the Student, Graduate & Co-op Employment office. 

She was in the planning stages for the project when COVID-19 arrived, but she says the pandemic has presented a speedbump rather than a stop sign, as she’s been able to continue her outreach virtually. 

Response to her efforts has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I’ve been really struck by the positive response. I wasn’t sure initially how employers might respond but they’ve been very keen to engage with the work,” says Gillies.

“Many are very appreciative of the opportunity to hear what others are doing and to gain insight into best practices they can put in place to better support Indigenous employees. Many are also looking for ways to support their non-Indigenous employees in learning about and engaging with Indigenous culture.”

The project received funding from the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training for work integrated learning initiatives.

Gillies says she’s encouraged by the way in which the project has also been an opportunity for the College to build on existing relationships with employers, and to foster new relationships.

The challenges of remote working and learning during the pandemic hasn’t stopped students from voicing their experiences and perspectives Gillies is pleased to report.

“I want to hear from any OC students and alumni who self-identify as Indigenous and who are interested in sharing their thoughts or questions about work-integrated learning,” she says. 

“We are calling it a survey, but in truth it’s a conversation. Some conversations happened in person before the pandemic, but whether it’s a phone call or an online video chat, it’s about two people hearing each other’s voices, sharing and learning from each other’s experiences and perspectives.”

One of those students who has been a contributor of insights and a keen supporter of the project has been OC business student Jillian Seronik.

A strong advocate for inclusivity in the classroom, Seronik notes that she hopes her experiences could inspire other Indigenous students to follow in her footsteps in pursuing post-secondary studies and thinking about co-op. 

“I never thought I’d do a co-op but a friend of mine encouraged me and I’m so glad I did,” explains Seronik, who completed a term with RBC in Kelowna during the Winter semester and was hired back for the summer.

“My co-op experience has been great. RBC has been great to work for. I’ve personally felt supported and that they care for their employees,” says Seronik. “They have initiatives for their Indigenous employees. I’ve also really appreciated and seized opportunities to share my culture with my non-Indigenous colleagues.”

Seronik also credits her co-op experience in helping her identify her goals after graduation: she now hopes to find a role within RBC in HR or Marketing. 

“I’ve been excited to share my experience because I think there needs to be more support, encouragement and opportunities for Indigenous youth to get into co-op.”

Anyone wishing to connect with Gillies to learn more about the project or engage in the consultation process, can reach her at jgillies@okanagan.bc.ca or 778-715-6864.

Sunday, June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada.