Study: Native American Students Face Unique Challenges in Pursuing Natural Resources Degrees

February 01, 2017

MISSOULA – A new article points to barriers faced by Native American students pursuing degrees in natural resource programs. Ruth Swaney, coordinator of the Native American Natural Resource Program in the University of Montana’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation, is a co-author on the study published this month in the Journal of Forestry.

For the study, a group of undergraduate and graduate Native American students majoring in natural resource fields summarized their academic and campus culture experiences. The findings highlight some key opportunities and challenges for Native students in higher education during a time when both universities and natural resource agencies want to recruit more Native American students and employees.

Some of the challenges Native students face include: a variety of nontraditional paths to college; a deep sense of environmental stewardship and obligation to give back to communities that might conflict with an impersonal approach to science and management emphasized in courses or research; and lack of faculty as mentors on tribal issues.

“We found that an Indian identity provides motivation for some Native students to pursue their degrees because of a strong connection to the land and resources,” Swaney said. “Those students might experience cultural tensions in their academic work, but one way to overcome those tensions is by including tribal issues and Traditional Ecological Knowledge in coursework or research.”

The authors point to the many benefits of engaging in graduate work, including the ability to address tribal issues in their research, allowing them to contribute meaningful biological and cultural information to tribes.

UM recently was highlighted in a Chronicle of Higher Education article as an institution that creates a welcoming environment for Native students. That article noted that UM’s Native student population is about 5 percent of its student body. The national average is 1 percent.

UM’s Native American Natural Resource Program provides educational opportunities, advising and support to Native American students enrolled in the Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. Swaney was named coordinator of the program in 2015.

“We are fortunate to have Ruth Swaney mentoring and advising Native students here in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation,” said Dean Tom DeLuca. “We feel strongly that this sort of support is essential for encouraging and successfully mentoring our Native students, as well as bringing awareness of indigenous knowledge and practices into the broader student experience in the college.”

The paper “Native American Student Perspectives of Challenges in Natural Resource Higher Education” was published Jan. 19 in the Journal of Forestry and can be read at http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/saf/jof/pre-prints/content-jof2016065r1 .

###

Contact: Ruth Swaney, coordinator, UM Native American Natural Resource Program, 406-243-5561, ruth.swaney@umontana.edu.