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Over the past 20 years, 43 aboriginal doctoral students have graduated from the university’s faculty of education. Ted Wilson, of Hartley Bay. B.C., whose family background is the Tsimshian, Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, shows a carving to other graduates as he waits to enter a convocation ceremony to receive his Master of Education Degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday November 21, 2012. DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAILDARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

When she chose a topic for her doctoral dissertation, Donna Lester-Smith settled on the Warriors Against Violence Society, a Vancouver-based program that counsels aboriginal families dealing with violence and abuse.

Ms. Lester-Smith also chose how she went about the project, doing as much as she could to involve WAVS clients as participants, rather than subjects, in her research.

"I pushed the boundary of collaborative research," Ms. Lester-Smith said Wednesday, shortly after her congregation ceremony at the University of British Columbia. "I did not research on them, I researched with them, side by side."

Her approach paid off this week when she was awarded a PhD in education from UBC, becoming part of the largest group of aboriginal doctoral students to date to graduate from an education faculty at any Canadian university in one year. The group of 11 students undertook research areas such as prison education, aboriginal children in care and family violence and healing.

For Ms. Lester-Smith, who was born and raised in B.C. and traces her aboriginal roots back to Quebec, her doctoral degree caps an academic journey that began with night-school undergraduate classes and has focused largely on native women.

For her master's degree, she studied four HIV-positive aboriginal women living in Vancouver. At WAVS, she monitored sessions that incorporated native practices such as smudging with the aim of helping participants understand and manage problem behaviour. Launched in 1998 as a service for aboriginal men, the program has since expanded to serve men, women and children.

"She become part of the group," WAVS executive director Joyce Fossella said on Wednesday, adding that some clients were at first wary of participating in a research project.

Forty-three aboriginal doctoral students have graduated from UBC's faculty of education in the past 20 years.

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