Spotlight Series:
The Verna J Kirkness Education Foundation

Interviewee:
Ron Woznow
(Co-founder)

What does this group do?

The Verna J Kirkness Education Foundation (VJK) was created with a single focus to increase the number of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis students graduating from science and engineering programs. According to the co-founder, Ron Woznow, students can be "exposed to the excitement of STEM" through a research program at universities across Canada, including at the University of Alberta. In this program, high-school students, specifically grade 11 students, live, work, and study with selected researchers, and mentors, in a Canadian university for one week. Projects by students include studying bird migration, food research, physics research, and much more! VJK also tries to have a cross-section of STEM research projects by allowing students to connect with each other, as well as with university professors in different STEM fields.

What are some of their major initiatives?

"When they graduate they can take knowledge back to their community"

When VJK was founded in 2008, Woznow and his colleagues found it important to focus on health and nutrition. Statistics highlighted high rates of diabetes and obesity in Indigenous communities and they saw the opportunity to get involved. They looked to educating Indigenous youth and started to reach out to universities across Canada that would be willing to help students get excited about a career in nutrition, kinesiology, nursing, or general health. In 2012, VJK saw the chance to open their program to include STEM fields, which broadened the opportunity for students. Woznow expressed how important programs like these are for Indigenous communities because "if you have Indigenous students getting engineering degrees [for example] they would take lots of pride in coming back to their communities and building them up".

What is the group’s vision for the future?

With roughly 20,000 Indigenous students having participated, Woznow "[wanted] every one of those students to have an opportunity to participate in a program and show them that having an education in STEM is possible". Since many of their students come from communities where many community members haven't pursued higher education, VJK stresses the importance of "Kirkness Scholars". This is an optional ambassador program for alumni of the VJK program who chose to go to university or college. "Kirkness Scholars" are able to to go into schools and talk about their experiences to show prospective Indigenous students that is possible to leave their small communities and make waves in larger ones. The connections created allow open conversation and gets students thinking about what they are capable of, an important goal of VJK.

What challenges have they faced in working towards their vision?

When VJK first started, communication became one of their greatest hurdles. Since they were the first organization of their kind, they needed to create connections from the ground-up. This meant travelling to universities across Canada and attempting to gain better technology, including tablets for their students, which at times was very difficult and unfamiliar. Woznow and the VJK team worked tirelessly to "give students and easy way to share their experiences", allowing them to grow to what they are today. VJK has also managed to gain traction over the years because of the work being done on reconciliation. Today, they get many requests from professionals that are wanting to support the Indigenous community and are asking to be mentors for students.

What does diversity in STEM mean to this group?

" Diversity always has added value, and the more diversity you can have, the great value you can have in looking at a wide range of issues that STEM professors and others want to look at..."

VJK believes that diversity is an opportunity for all students to pursue what they love which will allow them to bring their backgrounds into those fields. They highlight the importance of adding to diversity because it allows "more creative thinking" and "openness and understanding". Woznow explains that this is something they have seen achieved through their program. "We have had hundreds of professors since 2008 and everyone of them has asked to be able to mentor the following year. Why would a professor give up a week of time to do this? Answer is: many of them learned a new perspective of having Indigenous students in their programs”. Woznow also points out that VJK can't imagine too much diversity because it forces us to mutually respect one another.

Interviewers: Abhiroop Saha, Amirah Nazir, JuliAnn Thai (2021)Author: Amirah Nazir (2021)