With new funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, faculty from Montana State University and Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency will create a new project aimed at increasing access and support for Native American students, with an emphasis on the fields of environmental health, environmental science, and community health.
The $500,000 in funding comes from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s New Beginnings for Tribal Students Program. It will facilitate a program over the next three years called Returning to Our Good Camp. MSU faculty received a similar grant partnering with Blackfeet Community College in Browning last year.
“It’s obvious how a doctor or nurse helps their community. It’s not so evident with community health and environmental health specialists or water resource managers, but those are really critically needed in Crow and other tribal communities,” said Mari Eggers, one of the principal investigators on the project and a research assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology in the College of Agriculture. “We want to emphasize those tracks and give students exposure to those ways of being a scientist and helping their communities.”
Eggers, who taught at Little Big Horn College for a decade before joining the faculty at MSU, has been co-leading the community-based Crow Water Quality Project with tribal colleagues since 2005, conducting research on and around the reservation and working to provide accessible and safe water to all members of the community. The CWQP was created as the result of community-identified priority concerns about water quality, and this same approach to research will be a focus of the Returning to Our Good Camp program.
“My enthusiasm for this project stems from my own experiences as a Native undergraduate at MSU,” said Simonds. “In comparison to other institutions with which I have been affiliated through graduate school, post-doctoral programs, and as faculty, I am consistently impressed with the support that MSU provides Native students. I know firsthand the benefits that Native students gain from teambuilding activities and getting to know their faculty outside the classroom. I’m excited to expand the efforts that have been so essential to my own success.”
A critical development the funding will make possible is two new course offerings at Little Big Horn College covering water resource management and an introduction to community health, both of which are entry courses for programs offered at MSU. Eggers said she hopes providing those courses at the tribal college level will make it easier for students to optionally transition into four-year programs at MSU. Both of those courses will be taught by Crow tribal members who are also MSU alumni.
Eggers will collaborate with co-principal investigator Vanessa Simonds, an associate professor in the Department of Health and Human Development in the College of Education, Health and Human Development who also leads the Guardians of the Living Water project, a long-term community health partnership focused on public education about water quality on the Crow Reservation. Other collaborators include Christine Martin, principal investigator at Little Big Horn College; Charlene Johnson, executive director of Plenty Doors Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit located in Crow Agency; John Doyle of Little Big Horn College and the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee; and Jason Cummins, principal of Crow Agency Public School.
“MSU has been a great partner and has always been willing to work with us. Having those partnerships provides great opportunities for our students,” said David Yarlott Jr., president of Little Big Horn College. “We want our students to open up their eyes and their minds, open up their world a little bit wider so that they can see the opportunities that exist.”
Collaborators from MSU include College of Agriculture associate dean for academic programs Tracy Dougher, department head Tracy Sterling and associate professor Tony Hartshorn of the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, professor of health and human development Mary Miles, Julia Haggerty with the Institute on Ecosystems, Wyatt Cross with the Water Center; and Lisa Perry of the American Indian/Alaska Native Student Success Service.
The project will also facilitate internships for Native students through the CWQP, Guardians of the Living Water, Plenty Doors and other organizations like Messengers for Health, a public health nonprofit based on the Crow Reservation, to maximize experience for students in real-world settings. Eggers and Simonds also plan to establish a group trip for students from the reservation to Bozeman to familiarize themselves with the university and explore academic programs and research opportunities.
“I want students to gain this experience, seeing how the work they’re doing impacts how things are going to turn out, having some ownership of that research in this community,” said Yarlott. “I hope it increases their interest to learn more about how these methods make a difference, so they can continue to explore not only what’s going on here, but in other areas that have been impacted by drought. What’s being done out there that we might be able to apply here so we can provide better water for people?”
Complementing that orientation trip, said Eggers, will be a trip to Crow Agency for MSU faculty and staff in those programs to meet students and faculty at Little Big Horn College, learn more about the community and culture of the Crow Tribe and to better understand how to mentor Native students.
The most important goal, she said, is maximizing the benefit to communities and holistic student support.
“When you can give a student an opportunity for local, place-based research that makes a difference in their community, those are the students who go on to complete their degrees and even go on to graduate degrees,” she said. “It’s critical to this approach and it’s the foundation of what we’re doing here, to ground this in hands-on, real life experience as part of their education. It puts the ‘community’ in community health and the ‘environment’ in environmental health.”