When Rotshennón:ni Two-Axe and Kayla Spencer-Young found out there were few Indigenous students enrolled in science programs at Dawson College in Montreal, the two were motivated to spark change.
Now, they're being recognized for launching the IndigeSTEM peer tutoring project as a way to encourage and support other Indigenous students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
"There's so many opportunities in STEM fields, it would be really great to see more Onkwehón:we (Indigenous) representation," said Two-Axe, who is Kanien'kehá:ka from Kahnawake, south of Montreal.
Two-Axe, 17, is in his second semester of the junior college's enriched health science program, while Spencer-Young, 19, is wrapping up her first semester of pure and applied science after completing the college's Journeys bridging program.
Since January, the two have been offering weekly tutoring sessions for students who are working on prerequisite courses to enter science programs, and extracurricular activities that connect culture and science.
One activity Two-Axe organized was a hands-on trout dissection and cleaning.
"We did a little lecture on fish and trout anatomy and compared it to human physiology, just to sort of get that greater appreciation for culture and also the things that we're learning in classes," he said.
They've also invited guest speakers like Innu astronomer Laurie Rousseau-Nepton.
For Spencer-Young, she wants her peers to feel supported and inspired.
"Science is very intense," said Spencer-Young, who is Cree from Chisasibi.
"If I were to get into a science career, [it would] motivate other students and youth to go after something big and not fear the process or be intimidated by it."
The project won the students a local Forces Avenir award, recognizing student engagement in projects at 17 post-secondary institutions across Quebec. The award means they'll be in the running for the provincial Forces Avenir award in September.
"Kayla and Rotshennón:ni are so inspirational and dedicated," said physics teacher Joel Trudeau, who offered to support the students as a mentor.
"It is such a privilege to collaborate with them as they implement their vision for IndigeSTEM. I am excited to see how the project will evolve."
While the semester is coming to an end, both Two-Axe and Spencer-Young are already looking forward to connecting with new students in the fall. They hope the project becomes a model for Indigenous students at other universities and colleges.
"Going into something that's really out of your comfort zone, you need that sense of community," said Spencer-Young.
"That's what I wanted to create, just help motivate each other."
WATCH | First Nations students encourage peers to study science: