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by Ntawnis Elyse Piapot
First Nations students across Canada used their online instant messaging skills when they participated in a virtual summit on education Jan. 27. 
The summit was held by the Assembly of First Nations. Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo was on hand to hear the challenges First Nations students face while in university. Students provided insight and solutions in person and via instant messaging and email. The summit was held at the Vancouver Island University and had over 400 participants.
Many First Nations students live on $800 to $900 a month. They receive this money from the Post-Secondary Student Support Program funded by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. That amount must cover all their living expenses like shelter, food, and clothing. The amount can increase up to $1,500 a month if the student has a child. 
Still many find it hard to get by.  
Quality and culturally sensitive childcare is difficult to find for some parents, while others struggle to find childcare during and after-school hours.
Some students told stories of having to stay in homeless shelters while attending school. Rural students found living in the city for the first time challenging. Many experience culture shock and find it difficult to access resources that may help them. 
“There is this theme of the early part of post-secondary being so critical, the first year,” said Atleo at the summit. 
AFN has developed an inventory of services and resources for aboriginal students across Canada. Each university has a list of culturally relevant counselling services and housing initiatives in their city that students can look to for help. 
An INAC study shows the number of aboriginal students funded through the PSSSP program has declined from over 22,000 in 1997 to 18,729 in 2009.
“The PSSSP program is chronically underfunded. It’s capped at two per cent and I’d just like to see growth (in that area),” said Shane Keepness, a fourth year University of Regina student studying environmental health and science. 
Some students are concerned their education will not be funded beyond getting a degree.  
“I hope they look at (the PSSSP) from whether a student wants to go in to a master’s program, PhD, and on to higher levels. The way I see it, they’re basically aiming for First Nations students to be electricians or in the trades, whereas a lot of students want degrees and to continue at a higher level of education,” said Keepness, who plans on applying to medical school to become a doctor.
According to the INAC study, PSSSP graduates have increased from 3,644 in 1997 to 3,803 in 2008.
 “There is no free ride. We earn what we get. I want all First Nations people to know that they have to work for their education just like I have and just like so many students here have,” said Jesse Robson, a fourth year University of Regina political science student.
The overall goal of this summit is to increase First Nation grad rates. More research on how to reach this goal will be done at the AFN 2011 AGM.
Above: Students take part in the AFN virtual summit on education Jan.27.
Photo by Ntawnis Elyse Piapot.