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

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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