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From the Menominee Forest to Madison: Engineering a path for American Indian transfer students

College of Menominee Nation sign

If a UW-Madison faculty member is late to work, it’s likely due to traffic. When Diana Morris, dean of instruction at the College of Menominee Nation (CMN), was late one morning, it was because a bear was sitting on her car.

CMN is located at the southern end of Keshena, Wisconsin, a town of about 1,200 bordered by the expansive Menominee Forest. Founded in 1993 in the president’s basement with 43 students, CMN has grown into an established two-year college that includes campuses in Keshena and Green Bay and offers more than 20 majors and certificate programs to almost 700 students.

Around 80 percent of CMN students are American Indian and represent tribal communities across the country. Most are first-generation female students, and for many, the only people with college degrees they interact with regularly are doctors and teachers. Most, even those who are traditional-age college students, have at least one child. “Many of our students don’t even know what an engineer is,” Morris says. Yet Morris and her collaborators at UW-Madison and UW-Platteville want to do much more than tell CMN students the job exists—they want to help these students actually become engineers.

The three schools are working together as part of a National Science Foundation-funded initiative to increase the number of American Indian students who transfer from CMN to UW-Madison and UW-Platteville to study engineering. The collaboration team aims for 10 students transfer in the next five years.

While the goal may seem modest, that number would more than double the current number of students who transfer to UW-Madison from CMN to pursue any field.

There are fewer than 30 American Indian students in the College of Engineering, of around 250 American Indian students enrolled at UW-Madison as of fall 2010.

UW-Madison has long recognized the importance of increasing participation of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and the partnership with CMN is yet another opportunity to do so, says Manuela Romero, assistant dean for student diversity and academic services in the College of Engineering. “Nationally, minority students are most likely to begin their academic careers at two-year campuses,” Romero says. “This is true for Native students, and if we’re going to increase participation of underrepresented students, we have to look at two-year campuses.”

Establishing a strong foundation

For the last few years, CMN has worked on expanding its programs and developing pre-engineering and materials science courses under various other national grants.

Romero had a relationship with CMN during her tenure as the director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation. When Romero joined the College of Engineering in 2009, Morris quickly got in touch to collaborate on the proposal that was eventually funded by an $825,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Tribal Colleges and Universities Program and the NSF Directorate for Engineering.

CMN also partnered with UW-Platteville, which has many first-generation college students and is located in a community much smaller than Madison. The engineering disciplines that typically are of most interest to American Indian students are civil, environmental and mechanical engineering. Faculty members from these departments at both UW schools are participating in a working group that began meeting in spring 2011. The group will help CMN develop a more extensive science and math curriculum and establish a clear path for students to transfer to either UW institution.

The collaboration team also will look at building a STEM foundation for American Indian students long before college. The grant will support an outreach coordinator to visit K-12 tribal schools in Wisconsin and perform experiments with students and give advice about how to prepare for college and a STEM major in particular. “The intent of the grant is to make sure CMN can provide a strong foundation for their students so they can go on and transfer,” Romero says. “We’re not going to see all the fruits of this labor by the end of the five-year grant. We will see the real benefits later, once CMN has the structure in place to provide students with strong skills so their students will be successful here.”

Fawn YoungBear-Tibbetts is one of the students who has made the transfer from CMN to UW-Madison. She is majoring in life sciences communication in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS). Though she transferred with three other students who all enrolled in CALS, YoungBear-Tibbetts is the only one of the group who didn’t switch to different program because of challenges with the math requirements.

Relying on relationships

Exposure to STEM and access to introductory coursework aren’t the only issues that prevent many American Indian students from pursuing an engineering degree. Many CMN students also juggle childcare and significant financial concerns. “Finding pizza money on a Friday night is the least of their worries,” says Morris. Growing up, YoungBear-Tibbetts knew several scientists and her mother earned a geography degree from UW-Madison in the 1980s. “I practically grew up in Science Hall,” she says.

Despite the early exposure to higher education, YoungBear-Tibbetts didn’t immediately pursue a degree after graduating from high school. Instead, she moved to Minneapolis to paint murals and work for a cultural outreach program for several years.

She eventually returned to Wisconsin, and after earning her associate’s degree at CMN, YoungBear-Tibbetts decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and continue for a bachelor’s degree at UW-Madison.

Though YoungBear-Tibbetts was more prepared than most for the culture shock of moving from CMN to UW-Madison, she still faced a significant financial and time-management adjustment. YoungBear-Tibbetts balances homework with a full-time position at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, a part-time job as a science outreach coordinator at the UW Arboretum Earth Partnership for Schools and, most importantly, her 6-year-old twin boys. “I’ve been at the point where I’ve said this is not worth it. I can’t do this. I’m leaving,” she says. “I’ve felt that. I’ve been there.”

YoungBear-Tibbetts credits her relationships with several American Indian faculty members at UW-Madison as the reason she has stayed and been successful. “When I had a problem, there was no question who I would go to. My drive was having those mentors,” she says. “You learn from a mentor, then you start mentoring other people. That’s how we do things.”

Strong relationships on campus will be important for all students who transfer from CMN, says Morris. “This is true for every student, but it is core to the success of Indian students,” she says. “The ability to build a relationship with someone on campus can be the make or break.”

The UW schools each will have advisors who work at both CMN and their respective UW institution, so students can get to know those advisors during their time at CMN and continue the relationship once they have transferred.

Strengthening the future

Despite the challenges individual students may face during the transfer process, increasing the number of American Indian engineers will have many economic and community benefits in northern Wisconsin and elsewhere.

In the Northwoods region of the state, American Indian tribes are among the largest employers, with most working for tribal governments or casinos. “But the tribes need to diversify,” Morris says. “They’re looking for workforce opportunities.”

As CMN grows, so too will the number of science-related jobs it can offer. Morris hopes students who transfer from CMN to UW schools eventually will hold some of these jobs. CMN is the first and only tribal college in the United States to host a U.S. Forest Service research station, and Morris anticipates it will create around 60 jobs. Additionally, CMN plans to establish a materials science program that will emphasize fiber and wood products and hire several engineers and scientists.

Beyond economic development, there are additional benefits to establishing a new engineering workforce in tribal communities. “Indian students say they are getting their degrees for two reasons,” says Morris. “One is to return to the community and serve in whatever way will bring the community forward. The second is to serve as a role model for the young ones, to demonstrate that this is a career Indians are engaged in.”

For YoungBear-Tibbetts, there’s no question what motivates her as a student at UW-Madison and coordinator at the Arboretum. “Most Native people have this theory that seven generations—which are either the next seven generations or the past three, present and next three generations—all have to be considered when we make any decision,” she says. “I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing what I’m doing for the kids.”

Sandra Knisely
12/12/2011