By Morgan Laboucan, BA., Program Coordinator, Verna J. Kirkness Education Foundation
In 2008, the Family Food Research Foundation was established to raise graduation rates among Indigenous students in post-secondary science programs. The Foundation underwent a significant transformation in 2010 when Dr. Verna J. Kirkness, a renowned Indigenous educator, joined and agreed to lend her name to the organization. Soon after, the Verna J. Kirkness Education Foundation (VJKF) was born with the goal of increasing the number of Indigenous students graduating from pure and applied science, engineering, and mathematics programs across Canada.
VJKF proudly partners with several esteemed post-secondary institutions across Canada, including the University of British Columbia, the University of Saskatchewan, and the University of Manitoba. The Foundation aims to address the under-representation of Indigenous students in Canadian universities by offering VJKF Program scholarships to students in grades 11 and 12. These scholarships provide students with the opportunity to spend a week at one of our partner universities, where they can interact with and learn from professors, live in residence, meet role models and mentors, learn about the support systems available to them, and gain hands-on research experience.
Since 2010, 617 students have participated in VJKF’s week-long program. A survey conducted in 2022 revealed that among the participants who completed high school, 98.7% obtained their diplomas. Additionally, 87.9% of these graduates went on to pursue higher education at universities or colleges, with 55% of them selecting a major or minor in science, technology, math, or engineering.
As a proud member of the Driftpile Cree Nation and a former VKFJ program participant, I can attest to the enduring impact this Foundation has on students’ lives. Initially, I was hesitant to apply as I did not have a strong affinity for math or biology and had limited engineering knowledge. However, my experience in the VJKF Program at the University of Manitoba in 2016 changed my life. Between 2016 and 2021, I had the privilege of working as a summer student for VJKF while completing my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Calgary. In 2018, I joined the Board of Directors to bring a young, Indigenous female perspective to the Foundation’s mission. In 2022, I was appointed as the Foundation’s Program Coordinator.
The profound influence that the VJKF program has on the lives of its participants cannot be overstated. Only this year did I realize that attending the VJKF program was the first time I was exposed to my cultural roots without experiencing any shame associated with my Indigenous identity. For many of our Kirkness Scholars, what was intended to be a week-long program has transformed into an unceasing journey that continues to shape their lives.
Having reviewed this year’s student application essays, I was moved by the remarkable display of self-advocacy, curiosity, and a shared desire for change. We are immensely grateful for the unwavering support of our sponsors and donors, whose generosity has allowed us to award 110 program scholarships for our upcoming May 2023 programs through the Verna J. Kirkness Education Foundation (VJKF).
We are committed to cultivating sustainable connections between Indigenous students and post-secondary educational institutions in Canada as we work to nurture the next generation of Indigenous leaders in STEM.
Scovan is proud to support the VJKF as the non-profit organization from our International Women’s Day Forum.
Originally published in Scovan’s IGNITE Vol. 6