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Splendor within First Nations University

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REGINA, Saskatchewan - Stepping inside the university's foyer, a two-story tipi is striking in its presence and immediately captures the attention of visitors, not only by its size but also with its vibrant colors.

This glass structure is the showpiece of the recently opened First Nations University of Canada, the first such post-secondary institution throughout North America. Embedded in the center of the tipi's floor is a fire pit made from red pipestone material to be used for traditional ceremonies.

Among the extensive guest list of the more than 2,000 who attended the unveiling of the university on June 21, Canada's National Aboriginal Day, was Matthew Coon Come, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He expressed immediate excitement about what this expansion means to the country's Natives.

"Education is a way to get out of our poverty and give our young people a choice," Coon Come said. "This university is First Nations controlled, that's the difference, with its board of directors who are First Nations leaders."

Prior to this four-story, 150,000-square foot building, designed by architect Douglas Cardinal, an Order of Canada recipient, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) was scattered throughout seven locations in Regina. Now this centrality allows students and staff of SIFC, the organization that continues to operate First Nations University, to have a permanent home.

Since 1976 when SIFC opened with seven students, the school has been affiliated with the University of Regina. In those 27 years, more than 2,000 students at SIFC have graduated with degrees, diplomas and certificates in a variety of academia including business and sciences in addition to Native studies and languages.

Chair of the university's project management team is Vikas Khaladkar, who was also the school's acting dean of academics for two years. He says students who enter First Nations University will not only get a world-class education but will be treated differently and holistically than if they choose to attend elsewhere.

"Besides the academics, we try to maximize the success that is culturally consistent in keeping with the ways of the elders," Khaladkar said, who's been involved with the school for over 20 years.

That explains why the elders' offices, of which there are three employed full-time, are located on one side of the tipi and the student services center is on the other.

There are more than 500 full-time students and another 1,000 part-timers in Regina with another 500 students attending the three other Saskatchewan campuses of the SIFC. Though the enrolment continues to rise, the concept of keeping a low student-to-teacher ratio remains key and Khaladkar adds there is a closer relationship between the faculty and students than at other universities.

The $25-million project was more than a decade in the works and the timing of the university's opening is advantageous to the next generation of First Nations. Across Canada, Natives are the fastest growing population and more than 10 percent of Saskatchewan's one million residents are Aboriginal. With the average age of just 17 for Aboriginals in the province, there's an opportunity to fill a void in the work force that's impending with the retirement of the baby boomers as the average age for non-Natives is 39.

Students are required to attend classes at the University of Regina in conjunction with those courses at First Nations University. This will avoid the problem of graduates being insulated from non-Native lifestyles. Khaladkar mentioned the staff also teaches at both campuses.

"There is a joint set of standards as far as what's taught in the classroom and the academic credentials of our faculty are also the same as the staff at the University of Regina. Teachers here will teach there and must meet that bar," Khaladkar said.

Besides the education that will be provided at the same cost as the University of Regina (approximately $3,500 U.S. annually for full-time status), First Nations University is an architectural gem. The building itself incorporates Aboriginal practices with its entire structure made out of curves and circles, for the purpose of inclusiveness and equality. Noticeable from the air across the landscape of the prairies, the structure's facade at ground level is striking with its green glass and stone design.

The foyer houses numerous pieces of artwork including the wooden doors entering the tipi. Carved from a 2,000-year-old Californian Redwood Sequoia that died two centuries ago, the commissioned artist was John Henry Fineday, a graduate of SIFC's Indian Fine Arts Program. On the inside of the doors is the creation story with Wisakechak, the beaver, otter and muskrat while on the outside, numerous prairie animals are inscribed, from the bison to the butterfly.

The building is also energy efficient. With maximum exposure of the southern sun, the jutted layers of the floors shade the offices and rooms below saving on air conditioning in the summer while in the winter the glass acts as an insulator providing an additional amount of heat and light.

Facing south is also in keeping with Aboriginal culture, says Khaladkar, as this is the path of migrating animals. When asked if this is also the direction the university wants its students to take, he said, "Yes ... and we want them to come back," with a hearty laugh, referring to the animals' direction upon their return.