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BSU graduation hosts largest-ever class of Indigenous nursing students

Eileen Miller receives her diploma during Bemidji State University's 105th commencement for the College of Individual and Community Health on May 3, 2024.
Larissa Donovan
/
KAXE
Eileen Miller receives her diploma during Bemidji State University's 105th commencement for the College of Individual and Community Health on May 3, 2024.

Niganawenimaanaanig — a program designed to recruit and retain Indigenous students into nursing tracks at Bemidji State University — saw nine students graduate this year, a record class since the program's inception in 2017.

BEMIDJI — Bemidji State University recently celebrated its 105th commencement, and among its mortar boards, tassels and gowns, graduating students are blazing new paths forward for themselves and their families.

Nine students from Niganawenimaanaanig graduated this year, which officials said is the largest number of those in the program to graduate together.

Niganawenimaanaanig is Ojibwe for “We Take Care of Them.” At the basic level, the program provides scholarships and stipends for Indigenous students interested in Bemidji State’s nursing programs. The model also offers holistic support to students, with cultural experiences grounded in Indigenous wisdom, teachings and values.

Bemidji State University's 105th commencement for the College of Individual and Community Health on May 3, 2024.
Larissa Donovan
/
KAXE
Eileen Miller, center, sits with her classmates during Bemidji State University's 105th commencement for the College of Individual and Community Health on May 3, 2024.

The program began as a pilot seven years ago to recruit and retain more Indigenous students. It is funded through federal Health and Human Services grants designed to diversify the health care workforce.

Since founding the Niganawenimaanaanig program, Bemidji State has seen an increase of Indigenous students in its nursing tracks, averaging more than 20 students each year, with 26 students served this year.

Bemidji State offers two nursing tracks: for registered nurses with a two-year degree to earn their bachelor's degrees online, and a four-year prelicensure track for on-campus students.

Among those graduating during the May 3 commencement was Eileen Miller, who described herself as a 65-year-young Red Lake Band member. Miller shared her reflections on the program and the support she received in an email.

“I had wanted to go back to school for a long time,” Miller wrote. “When I checked into school before, something was always in my way. When a colleague mentioned the new program at BSU, I was immediately interested.”

Miller’s first exposure to the health care field came when she left the Twin Cities to work with her grandmother, who had diabetes.

“My original job in Red Lake was working on a research project, studying diabetic kidney disease in Indigenous people. We were investigating whether certain medications could affect the course of kidney disease,” she said.

Logo for the Niganawenimaanaanig Indigenous nursing program at Bemidji State University.
Contributed
/
BSU
Logo for the Niganawenimaanaanig Indigenous nursing program at Bemidji State University. The bear represents the Ojibwe bear clan — medicine people with knowledge of healing.

“We found out that certain medications did help slow down kidney disease. Today, the medications we used are the standard of care for everyone with diabetes.”

Miller said the support she received at the Niganawenimaanaanig program helped her navigate financial aid, course outlines and more.

“Tessa [Reed], my mentor, was the best friend I had for school. The instructors realize that you have a life, job and responsibilities outside of school. I can’t say enough good things about this program, I know I would not have been successful without all their support,” Miller wrote.

Many of the students enrolled in the program are working full time and raising families, such as 27-year-old Paulette McArthur, a BSU junior interested in graduate school in the years to come.

"I work full time as the only nurse for a men's inpatient treatment center. So I stay pretty busy with work. But also I have three children, [ages] 6 and under,” McArthur said in an interview.

McArthur and her family live and work in White Earth. She takes her courses for baccalaureate nursing online, and said she was drawn to the health care profession from a young age.

"I was maybe 13 years old and my grandma, who had Alzheimer's at the time, came to stay with me and my parents and she needed a lot of help. And I guess that was a kind of an eye opener to me, and I did help out a lot. When she went to the nursing home, I visited her quite often. And that's just kind of how I got my interest going. Immediately when I turned 16, I got my CNA [certified nursing assistant]."

Paulette McArthur, 27, White Earth.
Contributed
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Paulette McArthur
Paulette McArthur, 27, White Earth.

After working with elders in long-term care, McArthur moved into the chemical and mental health field, where she said she intends to stay while pursuing her education.

“It's something that I think a lot of people struggle with, and I've personally lost family members to addiction. I have quite a few [relatives] still battling it and it's something that I care about very deeply.”

McArthur pointed to higher rates of suicide and substance use disorders in American Indians, who are disproportionately impacted compared to other racial groups. She said her desire to help her people is motivation to obtain her degrees.

“I just think that if I went on to get my psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, I could help with the substance abuse... [with] medication assisted treatment services, but also providing mental health services as well. I just feel like there's a shortage in both of those in general, and I just want to contribute.”

In addition to the financial and resource support of the Niganawenimaanaanig program, McArthur said weekly check-ins with mentors were just part of the connection she feels while earning her online degree.

"They're just really supportive. I don't think that I would be where I'm at today without the Niganawenimaanaanig mentoring program, especially in helping me realize that I do want to keep going to school and that this is the path I want to take," McArthur said.

“Just making it a little easier for me to complete school with all the support, all the mentoring, the emails, just always being there. It's just it makes it so much easier to keep going.”

More information on how to apply for these programs is available on the Bemidji State Niganawenimaanaanig webpage.

“I would encourage Indigenous persons interested in going into nursing to check out this program,” Miller wrote.

Larissa Donovan has been in the Bemidji area's local news scene since 2016, joining the KAXE newsroom in 2023 after several years as the News Director for the stations of Paul Bunyan Broadcasting.