Indigenous student internships help build community

(Photo credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic (Chanelle, Kimberly, Dakota))

This year, students in three different programs at Saskatchewan Polytechnic were awarded applied research Indigenous student internships. New in 2023, the internships offer students with First Nations, Inuit or Métis heritage funded internship positions with the intent of encouraging and supporting their participation in applied research and scholarly activities.

The internships range from three to 12 months and are valued between $12,500 and $50,000. Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) through the tri-agency College and Community Innovation (CCI) program’s Mobilize grants, the internships are allocated through a competitive nomination process by a committee within the Office of Applied Research and Innovation (OARI).

For Chanelle Gaudet, who is in her final year in the Collaborative Nurse Practitioner program, the opportunity to tap into this significant internship funding came as a surprise. As part of her final project last term, Gaudet needed to find a research supervisor. Her interest in mental health and wellness made research manager Lindsey Boechler, whose own research is in this field, a natural fit.

“I was already doing research work with Lindsey as part of my program,” she says. “We were talking about my Métis heritage and she said she thought I might be eligible for an Indigenous applied research internship. She helped me apply and I’m so grateful. I have one year of funding, which is potentially up to $50,000 of paid research time.”

Gaudet, raised in St. Isidore de Bellevue by parents of francophone Métis descent, hopes one day to open a private practice as a nurse practitioner. She has a particular interest in post-partum women’s health and pediatrics. The research she’s doing in her internship focuses on modern, innovative strategies for patients.

“A lot of people rely on the same medications over and over,” she says, “and sometimes they aren’t working. I’m researching other long-term interventions—everything from diet and exercise and using coping strategies and counselling, to lesser-known treatments such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), and ketamine and psilocybin therapy.”

Boechler explains that Gaudet is taking the lead on the project by composing a research proposal and literature review with a focus on Indigenous health. “Chanelle's plan is based on studying how nurse practitioners influence the healthcare system at the primary, secondary and tertiary level,” says Boechler. “She’ll be working with local investors and community partners to explore technology solutions including teleservices that can reach remote and rural clients. It’s an exciting project.”

Being offered the opportunity to do research through a paid internship means that Gaudet can concentrate on her research and pursue the area of study she wishes to focus on. “This internship gives me freedom from financial stress, particularly in the current climate. It’s also giving me an opportunity to build a relationship with my research supervisor. I’m learning so much.”

Kimberly Roberts, who also began an Indigenous applied research internship this past spring, is in her second year of the Integrated Resource Management program. Taking an interest in applied research early in her program, Roberts worked with research chair David Halstead on a community project with Big River First Nation. The project is using drone technology in collaboration with local oral history and knowledge to help identify heritage sites in forested areas.

Halstead nominated Roberts for an internship, which will last through the current academic year and provide her with income to do applied research while balancing her studies. “Course work comes first,” says Roberts. “My program is my main priority. Having this internship gives me a chance to gain research-related experience through the academic term, though, and a source of income.”

Roberts lived in Saskatoon for most of her life and says she worked at a variety of jobs after high school. “This internship program is really valuable,” she explains, “and not just financially. My mother was from Montreal Lake Cree Nation and I grew up without a close connection to her. After working for a few years, I decided I wanted to do something that would connect me back to the land. I love the forest, canoeing and hiking and wanted a career that could get me out there more. I stumbled upon the Integrated Resource Management program and moved up to Prince Albert. It’s been the best choice of my life going back to do further education.”

Roberts didn’t know when she started her program that Indigenous learning would be a highlight. “Indigenous teachings in the program are impactful and the ceremonies I took part in made me want to connect with my mom’s family, who recently passed away. This internship opportunity has further increased my connection to my heritage, which is something I never expected. The research I’ve been participating in has helped me find a connection with the land of my own people and repair some of the broken heritage I’ve been disconnected from.”

This brings Roberts comfort as well as confidence. “These internships connect indigenous people with opportunities. Education systems are recognizing what needs to be repaired as part of truth and reconciliation. That’s huge.”

Sask Polytech’s third Indigenous internship student in 2023 is a recent graduate of the Therapeutic Recreation program in Saskatoon. Dakota Schaffer is about to begin an eight-month internship with research supervisor and program head Linda Martin, who previously supervised her practicums. Martin is thrilled that she can keep Schaffer on to work with her in a research capacity, explaining that Schaffer is one of the first recreation therapists in Saskatchewan and possibly Canada to work in an elementary school outside of a practicum.

“Dakota has a unique opportunity to help our profession become better known in the school system,” says Martin. “Many people don’t know what recreation therapists do. Our goal is to demonstrate the benefits of having a recreation therapist work with high needs children and youth and build advocacy for the profession within the education system. Recreation therapists have the opportunity to make a difference for many students, but only if we’re there. This internship will help strengthen the argument for an integrated model of health and wellness, including recreation therapy, in educational settings.”

Schaffer will be working with a wide range of students from kindergarten to grade 8 with mental health, neurodevelopmental disabilities and trauma-related challenges. Her internship will take place at St. Mary’s Wellness and Education Centre in Saskatoon, an-innovative school / health facility blend serving a high Indigenous and new Canadian population.

“I’m so excited that this internship will allow me to work with the students right to the end of the school year,” she says. “My previous practicums ranged from four to eight weeks and it was hard leaving students mid-way through the year. I’m also looking forward to this internship being my full-time job. While I was in my program I would leave my practicum after a full day, then go to work at another job. It’s easier to practice what we preach as recreation therapists if we come to work well rested each day!”

Schaffer grew up on a farm near Outlook and didn’t know her background until she was a pre-teen when her dad rediscovered his own father, who, to everyone’s surprise, turned out to be renowned author Richard Wagamese.

“When I met him, I knew instantly where I’d gotten my outgoing personality” says Schaffer. “I found a piece of myself that was missing, and my brother looks just like him. It’s exciting to learn more about my heritage, and I’m proud of where my family comes from. I’m looking forward to working with Sask Polytech at St. Mary’s Wellness and Education Centre to help make a difference to my community.”

Says Dr. Susan Blum, associate vice president of Applied Research and Innovation at Sask Polytech: “We’d like to thank NSERC for the Mobilize grant funding that makes these applied research internships possible.Encouraging Indigenous student participation is an important step that will help further our equity, diversity, inclusion and Indigenization (EDII) goals in applied research. The projects these students are working on are inspiring.”

This article was adapted and republished with permission from Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

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