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Washington State University Graduate School

Graduate School Awarded NSF AGEP Grant to Increase Native American Doctoral Graduates in STEM

The Graduate School was recently awarded $600,000 as part of a 4-year, $2.4 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Alliances for Graduate Education and Professoriate Transformation (AGEP-T) grant (HRD-1432932) to increase the number of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) doctoral students who complete STEM graduate programs.

Titled “Collaborative Research: The Pacific Northwest Alliance to Develop, Implement, and Study a STEM Graduate Education Model for American Indians and Native Alaskans,” the grant is a strategic alliance of Washington State University, University of Idaho, University of Montana, Montana State University, Heritage University, Salish Kootenai College, and Montana Tech. Washington State University is the lead institution with the Graduate School serving as the coordination hub for the recruitment, retention, and professional development activities. The grant’s working title, “Pacific Northwest Circle of Success for Mentoring Opportunities in STEM,” or PNW-COSMOS, will serve as the alliance identification.

Bill Andrefsky, dean of the Graduate School and grant PI, and Debra Sellon, director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and co-PI, will serve in an advisory capacity for the grant. Sellon was PI on a 2011-12 AGEP planning grant that showed the substantial need for a recruitment, retention, and mentoring model for underrepresented populations.

“We will be building a program based on mentorship that will depart from the traditional hierarchical mentoring system,” said Carris. “We are looking for faculty who are open to learning new ways of mentoring and approaching knowledge and its application within STEM disciplines from indigenous cultural values and world view. This will support the success of Native students and the contributions they can bring to the academy and to the acquisition and application of knowledge.”

Amit Dhingra will serve as Co-PI and chair of the alliance internal steering committee and coordinate the WSU recruiting and mentoring activities. He is associate professor in Horticulture and Molecular Plant Sciences at WSU.

Specific objectives of the grant are to: 1) develop a model facilitating discipline-focused, culturally relevant recruitment pathways and a culturally-congruent mutual mentoring program to support the unique needs of AI/AN STEM graduate students, 2) implement the model by developing new alliance activities, interventions, and coordination of existing activities and resources, and 3) study the effectiveness of the model through ongoing assessment.

A Social Science Aspect

Kelly Ward, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership, Sport Studies and Education/Counseling Psychology, and co-PI on the grant, will be leading a parallel social science research study to advance knowledge of what influences graduate student success in STEM disciplines with a focus on how socialization is facilitated by culturally congruent approaches to mentoring.

“If a student feels cultural congruity, their culture will fit with their environment. If they find themselves at odds culturally, they will feel a lack of respect and feelings of isolation,” said Ward.

The social science team, made up of personnel from WSU, UI, UM and MSU, will survey graduate students from institutions known for effective NA/AI recruitment and retention to find out how the students perceive cultural congruity, and determine what these schools are doing to have better student recruitment and retention outcomes.

Ward explained that people accumulate advantage or disadvantage over their lifetimes, which is connected to self-esteem and confidence. Research suggests that particular groups have not been successful in the STEM fields because they have not accumulated advantage in that area.

“It’s a really complex issue,” said Ward. “It’s easy to attribute the STEM issue to choice. We’ve said this so many times we’ve talked ourselves into it, and have ultimately created stereotypes.”

A Strong Infrastructure

In 1997, WSU entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with six Columbia Plateau tribes, recognizing the institution’s unique responsibilities to the First Peoples of the region and its location on the ancestral homelands of the Sahaptian-speaking Paluus’pu and Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) peoples. The MOU complements a 1994 state law guaranteeing that Native American students belonging to nations whose customary and tribal boundaries include portions of Washington do not pay out-of-state tuition. There are currently 10 tribes from the region who are signatory to the MOU.

The MOU formed a Native American Advisory Board to the president, composed of tribal representatives from the signatory tribes. In 1999, in response to tribal recommendations, WSU conceptualized the creation of a Plateau Center as an outreach to Native American students with a vision to prepare them in fields that would benefit their people and communities, focusing on academic programs, leadership, service, internships and research. The Plateau Center continues to develop toward achieving this mission. The WSU Tribal Liaison provides support for the Native American Advisory Board to the President, promoting the relationship between Tribes and the university and facilitating implementation of recommendations from the board. Barbara Aston is director of the Plateau Center for Native American Programs and Tribal Liaison.

Ken Lokensgard is the Graduate Student Services and Research Coordinator in the Plateau Center. He will communicate and work with representatives of the Plateau Tribes in order to involve their prospective graduate students in the AGEP grant.

“My most important role in the grant is to provide information about the Plateau Center and its resources and let tribes know we have a strong infrastructure to support their interests and their students here at WSU,” said Lokensgard. “We want to extend our research mission, increase collaboration with tribes, and increase the respect for and value of tribal knowledge.

Lokensgard noted that the Center has well-established programs for undergraduate Native American students that will be extended to graduate students, plus they will be developing research programs and connecting students with funding opportunities.

Implementing Knowledge

The first planning meeting for the alliance took place in November in Missoula, and plans are underway to begin implementing the social sciences survey. The Graduate School is working with partner institutions to identify strategies, such as a bridge program, that will assist Native American students in making a successful transition from baccalaureate to graduate programs.

“A bridge program will provide an opportunity for students to get attuned to life in Pullman and WSU. They can become familiar with the campus and community, participate in internships and workshops, and have an opportunity to work with faculty before their program begins,” said Andrefsky.

The first year of the grant will also include developing workshops for faculty mentors, an Indigenous Knowledge Field Camp for students and faculty mentors to closely examine unique cultural perceptions and beliefs, and assisting student participants in preparing and submitting NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program application. As the grant progresses, the alliance will assess, evaluate, and realign its efforts based on results.

“The NSF has provided WSU and the other alliance institutions with a challenge,” said Carris. “Our task is to determine how best to work with Native American communities to meet this challenge. It is a really big step.”

The Graduate School provides many opportunities for underrepresented students, including its Research Assistantship for Diverse Scholars and McNair programs. The NSF AGEP grant is an opportunity for the Graduate School to refine and expand its efforts to these populations.