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NIH program expands collaboration with social welfare to boost number of indigenous students in sciences

Monday, April 17, 2017

LAWRENCE — A program funded by the National Institutes of Health that leverages an existing partnership between Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas has as its goal an increase in the number of indigenous students pursuing biomedical and behavioral science careers.

The 500 Nations Bridge program is co-directed by Estela Gavosto, of KU’s Department of Mathematics, and Melissa Holder, Haskell College of Natural and Social Sciences, and has recently strengthened its collaboration with the School of Social Welfare in order to increase research opportunities for Haskell students interested in the behavioral sciences.

Rebecca Welton, 500 Nations Bridge program coordinator, approached faculty members Mary Kate Dennis (Athabaskan), Juliana Carlson and Nancy Kepple, all assistant professors in the School of Social Welfare, to serve as mentors. 

The Haskell students conducted research in social welfare, examining questions of resilience in indigenous youths in foster care, Indigenous approaches to environmental knowledge and absenteeism among American Indian/Alaska Native males at Tribal Colleges and Universities. The project, funded by the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, gives them an orientation to research/responsible conduct of research seminar, research experience and professional development opportunities in preparation for biomedical and behavioral careers. The students also present their work at regional and national conferences, including the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in the Sciences conference.

The students and faculty formed a research team that was grounded in a weekly meeting focused on discussions of research design, methodologies and dissemination as it related to foundational research skills while tailoring to the student interests. The students focused on both indigenous and western research methods. The team created a community that embodied the elements of indigenous research methods — it was relational, reflexive, community-based and created knowledge between the researcher and students and shared their work with the community both as a team and in their individual projects.

“One of the reasons I felt the program was successful was there was a lot of collaboration and people coming together for an interdisciplinary experience that wasn’t just a student in my office,” Kepple said. “We tried to find as much of an overlap in interests as possible and the best research fit for the students.”

Warren Griffin (Yupik) studied with Carlson and Dennis, and he focused on qualitative interviewing, recruitment and analysis. He explored his own research interests of absenteeism among American Indian/Alaskan Native male students at Tribal Colleges and Universities, known as TCUs. That demographic is the least likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree, even at TCUs, where their culture is celebrated and, in theory, they should have higher graduation rates.

Griffin found that literature pertaining to overall AI/AN suggests absences from class are a significant contributor to the lack of graduates, and the causes for absenteeism tend to be caused by many factors, including not being academically prepared for college, family obligations, financial constraints, lack of reliable transportation, lack of self-confidence and doubting a degree will help them achieve better employment. However, literature that addresses absenteeism among males at TCUs does not exist. He has proposed further research to explore the factors at such institutions. Additionally, by building his expertise in this area, he was selected to participate in a community advisory board on a Native American Research Centers for Health grant at Haskell that focuses on creating a transformative behavioral health initiative.

Sumer Al-Ahdali (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) was paired with Kepple, and together they studied resilience in indigenous, transition-age youths in foster care.

“I’m so used to the narrative of poverty and trauma, but I found evidence of some real resilience among these youths,” Al-Ahdali said. “Being indigenous, it surprised me because I’ve heard these stories of poverty for so long. It was reaffirming to know I’m doing the right thing. There was definitely a gap in the literature about indigenous people in foster care, as well as several other areas.”

She identified a lack of attention paid to indigenous youths in foster care, and the former helped point her to existing data that she could study to determine measures of resilience, such as graduating high school, moving on to higher education, employment and other variables upon aging out of foster care. Among her findings from 321 transition-age youths, she found 68 percent were employed and/or enrolled in school, 75 percent had stable housing, and 71 percent had no experience of incarceration or substance abuse referrals in the previous two years. The findings helped show the traditional narratives are not always true, especially when close scrutiny of data hasn’t taken place.

Reginald Black Elk (Oglala Lakota) and Dennis collaborated on a project that matched indigenous approaches to environmental knowledge. Black Elk is interested in incorporating this knowledge as suicide prevention and healing for Lakota adolescents. He performed fieldwork in taxonomy and indigenous languages and GIS mapping of trees at Haskell, while also studying texts on research methodologies suited to an indigenous population and medicinal plants of the prairies. He then met with KU scholars in environmental studies, law and social welfare at KU to identify ways indigenous knowledge and environmental studies can work together. Black Elk also took part in research at the Kickapoo Indian Reservation in Kansas to study methods such as taking water samples and learning about health and wellness.

“I was interested in ethnobotany, and indigenous people’s knowledge of plants has always been a topic I wanted to study,” Black Elk said. “I think if people are knowledgeable of their customs, they can be more connected to their communities and their traditions. Especially with indigenous people. We are the land.”

All three are continuing in their coursework and hope to extend their research to both further knowledge and to use their knowledge to benefit their respective communities and for indigenous people in general. Gavosto added that both she and Holder are pleased with faculty investment in the program and hope to provide similar opportunities to other Haskell students in the future.

“I feel my destiny and purpose on Earth is to help heal my people and just help them in any way I can,” Black Elk said. “I see myself working with people and helping bridge that gap between youth and elders.”

The mentors agreed their work has already broadened the field by joining indigenous knowledge with traditional science, two domains that have not always co-existed well. The students were able to incorporate indigenous knowledge throughout their research designs.

“Our discussions of social justice, research and indigenous methodologies created a unique intellectual space that the research team had never experienced previously, and we all appreciated learning from each other,” Dennis said.

As part of the 500 Nations Bridge program the students will continue their education on the way to careers in nonprofit, health, mental health, women’s health programs and related fields.

Both the faculty and the students made it clear that the summer research opportunity was transformative and mutually beneficial.

“As social work scholars and mentors, social justice is at the heart of everything we do,” Carlson said. “Our shared experiences with these justice- and community-minded students enriched our collaborative and unique work. It is hard to explain, the summer was very special.”

“It’s such a small community, that anything we do, whether it’s school, health-related or other areas, affects all of us,” Al-Ahdali said. “It’s a reflection of our families.”

Participants in the 500 Nations Bridge program joined others for the 17th annual KU-Haskell Indian Nations University Undergraduate Research Symposium, which was April 12 at Haskell Indian Nations University.

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