OCSS nursing students
Old Sun Community College nursing students. Samuel Tartsah

March 21, 2024

‘Spirit Helper’ empowers aspiring Indigenous nurses

Partnership between UCalgary and Old Sun Community College — with student support from donors — offers Siksika nursing students a robust blend of cultural and clinical education

Scrolling through social media one day, Erica Sitting Eagle’s attention was grabbed by a post on Facebook.

She read official word that Old Sun Community College (OSCC), in collaboration with the University of Calgary, was offering something new — a Bachelor of Nursing degree program. 

“I’d heard about it for a while,” says Sitting Eagle. “But I was like, ‘Oh, wow — is it really happening now?’” Contemplating education options for her younger sister Jarrisa, Sitting Eagle reached out to the college for more details.

The more she heard, the more she was impressed, learning that members of the Siksika Nation could remain in their community, embrace a curriculum featuring Indigenous content and earn a four-year degree. It inspired Sitting Eagle to move her future in another direction.

“I started exploring the idea that maybe I wanted to go back to school and pursue nursing,” says Sitting Eagle, who earned a health sciences degree from the University of Lethbridge in 2016. “Availability and accessibility, being on the Nation, made it appealing and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.

“I took a chance and applied. And I got in.”

Erica Sitting Eagle

OSCC nursing student Erica Sitting Eagle.

Courtesy Erica Sitting Eagle

Sitting Eagle is now part of the first cohort of the program, officially named Iiyikinaami — the Blackfoot word for “Spirit Helper,” which was gifted to the initiative by Elder Nato'otsisi, Herman Yellow Old Woman.

Sitting Eagle graduates in 2026, and Jarrisa, who recently submitted her own application to OSCC, will not be far behind. The sisters plan to share the journey.

“She keeps encouraging me, ‘You’re doing so good. Don’t give up. You only have two more years,’” says Sitting Eagle. “We just remind each other that we’ll get there some day. That’s our goal, the dream we want to achieve.”

Anonymous donors establish full-ride scholarships

Helping to put those dreams within reach are two anonymous donors who established eight four-year scholarships, worth $40,000 each. And, thanks to one of the philanthropists, related costs — such as student resources, tutoring, child care, transportation and income-subsidization — are also eligible for coverage.

selfie of a woman sitting in a car

OSCC nursing student Valene Rae Bear Chief.

Courtesy Valene Rae Bear Chief

“It’s amazing to feel that we are important enough to be invested in,” says Valene Rae Bear Chief, a classmate of Sitting Eagle’s. “All our dreams are a little different, but it is a common goal that we just want to take care of people. It’s in us to take care of people — as a mother, as an aunt, a sister, daughter, friend.

“I’m so grateful because, honestly, without this scholarship, I could not succeed as a student. They say you never look down on somebody unless you’re reaching down to help them up, and these donors are totally doing that for us.

“I really appreciate that.”

So does Maria Big Snake, MBA’21, president of OSCC, who says donated funds allow the college to offer a high calibre of nursing training.

“Quite often I’ll meet students in the hall and I say, ‘Has it sunk in yet that you’re a second-year nursing student?’” says Big Snake. “Being able to pursue their personal career dreams is going to provide opportunity, not only to themselves, but it also serves back to our community. That is so valuable to us.”

Discussion about the pilot project began in 2017. Dr. Heather Bensler remembers visiting OSCC campus to meet with their leadership.

“It’s never us going somewhere and saying we want to bring a nursing program there — we’re invited,” says Bensler, BN’96, EdD’22, assistant dean (academic partnerships) and associate professor (teaching) with the Faculty of Nursing. “There’s a relationship that is built as a foundation.”

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge and traditional teaching

From that foundation came the partnership between UCalgary and OSCC, formally recognized by the Siksika Nation community in March 2022. But collaboration was only starting. 

“If we’re going to provide a program for Indigenous students, we should be at the table for the decisions being made,” says Debbie Smith, BN’94, co-ordinator of Iiyikinaami. “It has since evolved into something more befitting an Indigenous program, simply because we added that Indigenous knowledge component.”

portrait of a woman in business attire, standing in front of a bookcase

OSCC President Maria Big Snake.

Courtesy Old Sun Community College

Adds Big Snake: “One of the beautiful things that came out of this relationship — the University of Calgary really was considerate of us including elements of our traditional knowledge, to be able to share and offer insights and traditional teachings to our students.”

In place now at OSCC are Siksika-based courses, as well as regularly scheduled tutorials from Elders and Knowledge Keepers. (A recent seminar focused on the importance of self-care for students. “I always find them uplifting,” Sitting Eagle says of the sessions.)

The ultimate goal, according to Dr. Michelle Scott, EdD’23, director of Indigenous initiatives and assistant professor (teaching) in the Faculty of Nursing, is to increase the number of Indigenous nurses, “whether it’s on the Nation, supporting and caring for their home communities, or in the city, so that care provided to Indigenous people is coming from a place of cultural understanding, a lens of humility and sacredness,” says Scott.

Accessible programming removes barriers

Nursing classes are led virtually by UCalgary instructors with rural and Indigenous community health experience. Clinical skills labs are also fulfilled at OSCC.

“Basically, all of the program is delivered through the college,” says Smith. “This is really important because it allows our students to reach out to the many supports they have in their own community. And, because a lot of our students are adults who already have families, it just makes it easier for them to be involved.”

nursing student takes blood pressure of a woman while another student looks on

Clinical skills labs are held on site at OSCC.

Samuel Tartsah

For Bear Chief, a parent of four, accessibility had been one of the key factors in her return to school. Philanthropic support was another: 

“Just knowing there’s people investing their money to back us is nice."

Eager to seize the opportunity, Bear Chief had ensured her own success, upgrading her high school chemistry grades in time to join the original cohort. “Regardless of life, I knew this is what I wanted,” she says.

A member of the Class of 2026, Bear Chief says she cannot wait to make a difference in health care.

“It’s all about helping people — to do better, to feel better about themselves, to feel that they’re heard,” she says. “It’s important that we’re seen as safe people, and not just in our own community. Maybe if people see their own in an emergency setting, they would be more apt to seek medical help.

“I’m really happy to be part of the change.”

Just as a single spark can ignite a roaring flame, philanthropy is the catalyst that starts something special at the University of Calgary. Explore more stories about the difference we’re making in the community and around the world with the support of donors like you.

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