NewsPositively Montana


Native American nursing students at MSU are eager to serve their communities

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Posted at 12:13 PM, Aug 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-23 14:22:50-04

A new $2.2 million federal grant will now help support students enrolled in Montana State University’s Caring for Our Own program.

The majority of that money will go directly toward helping students in the program turn their dreams into reality—dreams to enter the medical field and take their skills back home to bring change to their communities.

“In healthcare, it’s just so special to help someone feel better,” said Cheyenne Whiteman. She is from Crow Agency, and recently learned she’s one of fifteen students who will benefit from the four-year Nursing Workforce Diversity Grant.

“It’s really special because Native Americans are such a minority and to see them being nurses and different professions is breaking a stereotype which I think is super important,” said Whiteman.

It was Whiteman's grandmother Rosie Doyle who inspired her to become a nurse.

“Yeah, I grew up on the Crow reservation. I was born in the Crow hospital and that is where I want to work when I’m done. I live in the country there and just growing up, my grandma was a nurse. She was a nurse for so long. I just saw how special it was to her,” said Whiteman. “Healthcare on the reservation is kind of rough, you know. No one knows a Native American like another Native American and, you know, culture is important. We know what topics are sensitive and how to serve our people.”

Cheyenne is just one of 72 students enrolled in the program. The new grant now means almost every one of those students will be able to receive some kind of funding. Several students say they come from areas where not a lot of Native Americans are going to school, many because they simply can’t afford to. Now they say they have a better shot at graduating and inspiring others back home that they can do the same.

I think they’re going to be proud,” said Scarlet Mueller. She is an Alaskan Native Student. “I know my family is proud. I know my grandma is especially is excited for me. I’ve gotten a lot of calls from my village.”

Each student explained they had to overcome challenges to make it here, like Danielle Tapaha. She grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.

“We have the biggest tribe in the United States and my reservation covers four states,” explained Tapaha. “It’s hard for a lot of us to get scholarships. I was so happy, just filled with joy that I could get into this program, and that it’s being paid for is an even a bigger blessing.”

Others say simply leaving the reservation is the biggest challenge of all.

“It is very hard,” said Kirstin LaMere of the Rocky Boy Reservation. “It’s very hard because a lot of natives are family-oriented and they feel like they have close families and they don’t want to leave each other. You can do this and it’s going to be hard but it’s worth it.”

Dr. Laura Larsson says that’s exactly why both emotional support and the funding the program offers are important. The money, she says, is one thing - but the program’s tight-knit community is another. Together they hold the keys to making sure these nurses graduate, creating a more diverse workforce to change the face of healthcare.

“It’s really important that we have disparity in the workforce. That would mean having six to seven percent of nurses that are Native American. But right now that number is less than one percent. So it’s important that we have providers who understand us and also that we trust with our health care," said Larsson.

"What the research shows is that outcomes are better if Native American families have Native American nurses,” she added. “Our students care deeply about their communities and their families and their extended families. It is a service-oriented culture so about 90 percent of our students from the last 20 years have gone to practice in rural parts of Montana.”

They are educated in Montana and they stay in Montana. That’s what brings us to Tina Red Star. She’s the assistant director of nursing at Crow Hospital. She came to speak to students during orientation as they prepare for classes.

“I think it’s very important because coming from a small community there’s so much disparity and seeing someone successful, it helps encourage you,” said Red Star. “You get discouraged and homesick but it’s worth the sacrifice.”

She says every hand up, every word of encouragement makes a big impact.

“It helps the patients when they see other natives and it encourages them. It helps the healing process. They are so proud of someone that can go to nursing school and take care of their own,” said Red Star. “I hope that they know that they can do it, it’s going to be hard but it’s going to be worth it in the end. I’ve been there, done that, and felt like I wasn’t going to make it a couple of times. But I pushed through and now I’m the assistant director of nursing at the Crow Hospital."

Proving they can push through is exactly what each student here says they aim to do, for a better life for themselves, for better health care in Montana.

“My great-grandmother always told us our community would support us and what you need to do is give back to your community,” said Tapaha. “That is what I intend to do, come back and help.”

Almost every aspiring nurse we spoke with explained a family member in the nursing field helped fuel their dreams to go into health care.

Ninety percent of the $2.2 million goes directly to pay student scholarships for tuition, fees, books, and supplies.

The program supports both undergraduate and graduate students with advising and also tutoring. Students say it’s a group that’s like a family and one of the main reasons they chose MSU.

The College of Nursing plans to recruit more American Indian and Alaska Native students in order to better reflect the percentage of Montana’s population who identify as Native American.

Larsson noted that in Montana, American Indians represent 6.5 percent of the population, but only 3.2 percent of the nursing workforce identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

Across the nation, American Indian and Alaska Native nurses represent only 1.2 percent of the nursing workforce.