Completing the Circle: Supporting the Success of Native Graduate Students

The University of Montana is the winner of the 2021 ETS/CGS Award for Innovation in Promoting Success in Graduate Education.


Co-Authors (listed alphabetically):
Jennifer Harrington, Native American Natural Resource Program
Dr. Ashby Kinch, Dean of the Graduate School, University of Montana
Dr. Marilyn Bruguier Zimmerman, Senior Director of Policy and Programs, National Native Children’s Trauma Center


Institutional Context

Every University in North America is built on lands appropriated, bargained, or stolen from the Indigenous people who occupied this continent for millennia before the arrival of European peoples. Land acknowledgment statements are important ways for universities to acknowledge this history, but the ethical, moral, and cultural obligations of a university to repair, strengthen, and deepen relationships with sovereign tribes should extend beyond these statements.

At the University of Montana (UM), we are proud of our partnerships with the sovereign tribes of Montana, but we know we have ongoing work to do in broadening, and maintaining those relationships, at both institutional and individual levels. UM occupies the Aboriginal territories of the Salish and Kalispel people, whom we honor in our land acknowledgment. But Montana is home to 12 recognized tribes, who occupy seven reservation lands and operate as sovereign nations. The participation of Native communities as shareholders in higher education and cutting-edge research is an essential partner for talent, wisdom, and insight into the hard problems our society must address.

In the UM graduate school, our talented Native faculty and graduate students sustain that ongoing community engagement through a range of programs from the arts and education to humanities and STEM disciplines. Our Native student population is roughly 5% of our total graduate student population, compared to .5% nationally. Native graduate students are increasingly pursuing professional degrees that will allow them to contribute to their communities, whether in business, law, and economic development, or in direct service through professional practices in counseling, education leadership, public health, psychology, and social work. While the growth in numbers and the range of programs have been positive developments, we would like to see access expanded, especially through partnerships with the sovereign tribes and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).  Effectively supporting this student population requires attention at every level of the university system, from properly training financial aid employees to ensuring that colleges offer mentoring and peer support opportunities.

Cultivating and Sustaining Past Efforts

At UM, we have built recent momentum in support for Native graduate students by empowering Native faculty, staff, and researchers who were on campus in other capacities, but whose talents and insights have led to new models for mentorship. A Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partner (SIGP) since 2005, UM has benefitted tremendously from the engagement with Native STEM students, over 50 of whom have been funded to support their research at the master’s and doctoral levels. Those students, and their faculty advisors, have contributed to new research practices that build on the paradigm of Indigenous Research Methods and Methodologies (IRM), which is producing new scientific knowledge grounded in principles and values aligned with indigenous perspectives, and tribal needs. At UM, Dr. Aaron Thomas leads a broad initiative, Indigenous Research and STEM Education (IRSE), to generate outreach and education at every level of the vertical column of education, including pre-college, undergraduate, graduate, and community engagement.

In addition, the graduate school at UM participated in the NSF-funded PNW-COSMOS grant, which produced publications and practices for supporting Native graduate students (see reference list for further reading) and have made a substantial impact on the campus culture: almost 200 faculty, staff, post-docs, and graduate students have attended the Indigenous Mentoring Program (IMP) since it was first offered. Two of the present co-authors (Harrington and Zimmerman) connected through participation in PNW-COSMOS, which included other campuses in the Montana University System (Montana Tech and Montana State University), and their collaboration has been crucial to sustaining the IMP.

The IMP exemplifies the power of collaboration to produce a sustained initiative. The core content of the training was developed by faculty and staff with expertise and experience in the relevant content areas: Dr. Marilyn Zimmerman brings a lifetime of career experience working on the issues of cultural humility and historical trauma, which are essential features of training for faculty working with indigenous students. Jen Harrington, meanwhile, serves as a Program Director for the Native American Natural Resource Program (NANRP), where she has built and sustained a vibrant community of Indigenous graduate student scholars. By collaborating with the Office of Organizational Learning and Development, the IMP has become integrated into the rhythm of campus, providing an annual training of rich content that introduces faculty to core values and concepts like cultural humility and intergenerational trauma, while also showcasing the talented graduate students who are pushing forward new research paradigms.

The IMP training helps develop the cultural humility of participants by encouraging them to challenge their existing stereotypes of Native peoples, but also to acknowledge the way their own belief systems operate in silent ways of which they might not be aware. This workshop includes specific modules to bring these ideas to the surface, including a necessary lesson in the historical and intergenerational trauma that impacts the wellbeing of Native American students, their families, and their communities. Dr. Zimmerman specializes in this area of research, and it informs her delivery of modules like the Boarding School Exercise, which illustrates the secure and robust communities in which tribes lived prior to European contact. The removal of Native children during colonization undermined these communities and impaired these children’s ability to believe in and practice their spiritual and cultural ways. These impacts continue today, one reason why faculty benefit from the panel where students share their experiences in higher education, including instances when they have fallen through the cracks, been tokenized, and faced challenges with maintaining their cultural identity in a western institution.

The IMP training also features the groundbreaking work being done in the Indigenous Research Methods and Methodologies (IRM) paradigm, both here at UM and by regional scientists. The use and acceptance of IRM in western academia has grown and having access to culturally founded methods for conducting research has created a more inclusive research environment. In this training, Native American research professionals discuss conducting research in Indian Country. Historically, research has been extractive from Native American communities, failing to acknowledge the participants or place, and neglecting to give back to the communities being studied. Tribal governments, Culture Councils, and Tribal Colleges have developed their own Institutional Review Board (IRB) and protocols for conducting research in Native American communities. Guidelines for working with students in Indian Country include taking time for relationship-building, which does not often coincide with a two-year graduate degree. These panels provide an exciting opportunity for the community of researchers to see the work our graduate students produce to advance this new paradigm.

“Completing the Circle”: Peer Collaboration, Tribal Partnership

Building from on-campus models like SIGP and IMP, our focus has turned recently to developing two elements of the “circle of support” that sustains our Native students’ progress in their graduate programs: 1) a peer network of common cultural experiences and affiliations that expands beyond their individual program; 2) a sense of community that includes the tribal networks, both regional and national, that facilitate professional growth. We know these non-programmatic interactions facilitate the fullest intellectual and professional growth of our students, so we are looking to partner with existing support groups to amplify our efforts. While cross-cultural mentoring clearly has value, there is good research that peer collaboration and mentoring is a key support system for BIPOC students, who can share experiences, concerns, and successes in ways that are not mitigated by having to code switch in their communication with white colleagues or faculty.

Our Native American Natural Resource Program (NANRP) provides an excellent model for building and sustaining this kind of initiative. Established in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation to help identify needs, barriers, and retention numbers for our Native American students, NANRP has been bringing in Native researchers and hosting graduate student panels to discuss topics such as: the LandBack Movement, mentoring Indigenous students, and climate change impacts on Native communities. NANRP hosts meals where guest speakers link graduate students to networking opportunities, and the net result of these efforts is that this fledgling program has tripled its enrollment since 2015.

The University of Montana’s proposal for the ETS Award for Innovation, funded in December 2021, has begun to build on models like the NANRP by partnering with existing support networks to maximize participation across disciplinary lines, including directed outreach to the non-STEM and professional programs. This past spring, we partnered with the Indigenous Speakers Series, organized by Dr. Kate Shanley, who invited Drs. Kim Tallbear (University of Calgary), Eldon Yellowhorn (University of Victoria), and Patrick Lozar (University of British Columbia), to present public lectures and seminars. Each speaker also met with Native graduate students in small group breakfasts and lunches sponsored by the Graduate School with this grant funding. These conversations included students in anthropology, chemistry, law, media arts / documentary filmmaking, natural resource conservation, public policy, social work, systems ecology, and wildlife biology.

These students benefit from community-building focused on the cross-cutting intellectual resources of Native researchers across the country. We thus hope to expand on some of the recent work done in the Indigenous Speaker Series to foster connection with Native scholars. We will expand upon and amplify this interaction across disciplinary lines by supporting the foundation of an Indigenous Graduate Student Association (IGSA), with a charter to carry forward on-campus events that raise the visibility of the intellectual contribution of Native researchers and graduate students.

Further, we will continue to build on our tribal partnerships, knowing we have a lot of work to do to create pathways for Native students through the entire vertical pipeline of higher education. This spring, we hosted two events with faculty and personnel from Salish Kootenai College (SKC), and that collaborative conversation has yielded fruitful ideas about ways to build out inter-campus degree programs that will allow SKC and other TCUs to increase their teaching and research capacity. Native graduate students already enroll in our Interdisciplinary Graduate Programs in substantial numbers—they are 35% of the historical average of students—and we want to build on that investment in interdisciplinary work to provide degree paths that will support the faculty needs of the TCUs.

Using the ETS grant as a springboard, we will broaden that engagement by working with our Tribal Relations Director, Dr. Brad Hall, to visit tribes directly, bringing our talented graduate students with us to demonstrate the powerful value they can provide to the state and to the sovereign tribes. In recent years, we have seen an uptick in Native professional students (business, law, MPA, MPH, and social work), who are building out professional capacity for their tribes, state, and the region. On these visits, we hope to hear from tribal leaders about how they think graduate education can contribute to the health and strength of their communities. Here, too, we have the benefit of on-campus expertise: Dr. Heather Cahoon, a former employee of the state of Montana, is now faculty in Native American Studies and Director of the American Indian Governance and Policy Institute, a Native-led research institute and think tank that will provide analysis to tribes on a range of issues that impact community wellbeing, health, and stability.

We are thankful to ETS and the Council of Graduate Schools for the opportunity to explore different avenues to integrate, celebrate, and respect our Native students, and produce a more welcoming community.

Further Reading:

Brown, Blakely & Barbara Z. Komlos, 2019, “Designing and Implementing an Indigenous.
Mentoring Program for Faculty Who Mentor AI/AN Students in STEM Fields: Process, Outcomes, and Lessons Learned,” New Directions for Higher Education, 187, p. 67-77.

Brown, B., Windchief, S., Komlos, B., & Arouca, R. (2020). Assessing the impact of an
Indigenous Mentoring Program on faculty to support American Indian/Alaska Native graduate students in STEM. Journal of Faculty Development 34 (3), 27-36.

Hoo, K. A. & Windchief, S. (2019). Indigenous communities and access to graduate degrees in STEM (187th ed., Vol. 2019, New Directions for Higher Education). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Windchief, S., & Brown, B. (2017). Conceptualizing a mentoring program for American Indian/Alaska Native students in the STEM fields: A review of the literature. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 25(3), 329–345, 13611267.2017.1364815

Windchief, S., Arouca, R., & Brown, B. (2018). Developing an Indigenous mentoring program for faculty mentoring American Indian and Alaska Native graduate students in STEM: A qualitative study. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 26(5), 503–523,