Support for UA Native American Grad Students Gets Boost With $2.4M Grant

Tucson, Arizona - In a multimillion dollar effort to increase the number of Native American students in graduate programs, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is continuing funding of a program founded at the University of Arizona. 

The Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership will have its funding renewed for three years, enabling the UA and its partner institutions – the University of Alaska at Anchorage and Fairbanks, the Montana University System and Purdue University – to bolster efforts to recruit, retain and graduate Native Americans, specifically in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM disciplines.

"As we know, STEM education has taken off mostly due to the fact that, as a nation, we want to be competitive in the global arena," said Karen Francis-Begay, UA assistant vice president for tribal relations, who wrote the initial proposal for the program in 2003.  "Knowing that we've had very little diversity in the STEM fields, it make sense to invest resources and dollars in targeting students who would be up-and-coming scholars in STEM."

"Knowing that we've had very little diversity in the STEM fields, it make sense to invest resources and dollars in targeting students who would be up-and-coming scholars in STEM."

The majority of the newly awarded $2.4 million will go directly to students in the form of stipends, providing support to an estimated 59 students in master's programs and 20 students pursing doctorates. Of those, the UA expects to have 15 master's students and six doctoral students, said Maria Teresa Velez, associate dean of the Graduate College.

The money also will be used by the UA and the three other institutions – all of which adopted the UA program in 2005 after it began at the UA – to launch a national network to connect the Sloan scholars with one another at least monthly while also addressing the unique challenges they face, particularly associated with cultural and social isolation after leaving their home communities, Velez said.

"We will be bringing them together as a community – a network of friends who are pursuing similar goals," said Velez, who leads the Arizona Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership program. "That will help them to be a great social support for one another."

According to the Sloan Foundation, American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 1.2 percent of the U.S. population but earned just 0.3 percent of all doctorates in 2012, a decline from the 0.5 percent earned 20 years prior. 

"When it comes to meeting the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students, Alaska, Arizona, Montana and Purdue are truly exemplary programs," Elizabeth S. Boylan, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program director, said in a prepared release. "Now they're coming together to forge new opportunities and expand their already measurable impact." 

Francis-Begay noted that many Sloan scholars return to work for their tribal nations. Others work with organizations and companies, mostly around environmental issues.

"This investment is significant to tribes' abilities to strengthen their sovereignty, especially when they are up against challenges like growth and economic development within their nations," Francis-Begay said.

The UA has a strong track record of enrolling and graduating Native American students at the baccalaureate, master's and doctoral levels, Velez noted. More than 700 undergraduates and about 200 graduate and professional American Indian students attend the UA, she said, adding that the Survey of Earned Doctorates shows the UA leading the nation in the number of American Indian students graduating with doctoral degrees.

To date, the UA's Sloan program has graduated 40 students with master's degrees and 13 with doctoral degrees, Velez said.

One of the graduates is Nazune Menka (Athabascan/Lumbee), who is interested in doing consulting work around environmental policy, specifically as it relates to tribal issues.

Having already conducted environmental research in New Zealand and Norway, she plans to work in environmental law nationally and internationally.

Menka's interest is rooted in the environmental changes she has witnessed since her youth. Menka recalls her family members surviving on the fish they caught when she was growing up in Anchorage during the 1970s.

The sharp contrast between food access during her youth and the current environmental conditions become evident during an Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals conference she attended. It was during that conference that elders spoke about a notable shift in the ice season and increases in fish mercury levels. Also, the ice season shift was creating hazardous conditions for humans, she said.

"It wasn't safe to walk on the ice during times when it should have been, and there were deaths," Menka said. "The elders were speaking, and they were crying. I've never seen any elders cry in a professional setting. It really impacted me. I knew that we had to ask questions nobody was asking – that if we didn't do this for ourselves, the likelihood of someone else coming in and demanding solutions was really small."

Having earned her master's degree in environmental science from the UA in May, Menka will begin pursuing a law degree at the University of Hawaii this fall.

For now, she is interning with the Department of Energy in Colorado, where she is monitoring water levels and contaminants in drinking water around mills and mining sites.

"I'm thankful for Sloan. The program has been extremely instrumental in everything I did in graduate school and up to this point, and I appreciate Dr. Velez's support and feel camaraderie with her," Menka said. "Sloan was definitely a game changer for me," Menka said. "I'm happy to move in to this next step in my career having had this opportunity."