By Becca Andrews, UNC Asheville, and Chaz Lilly, WCU
The University of North Carolina Asheville and Western Carolina University (WCU) have partnered to help Indigenous students pursuing degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields.
The two universities will share approximately $220,000 over four years through the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership (SIGP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and part of a joint award with Purdue University and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME).
Working with UNC Asheville and WCU allows the Sloan Foundation increased opportunities to expand its reach to southeast American Indian populations.
“We hope that this partnership will allow us to serve more Indigenous students in our state and region by allowing them to prepare for graduate opportunities in STEM. Our students benefit from strong STEM mentoring and hands-on learning in state-of-the-art science facilities,” said David Kinner, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at WCU.
Kinner added that WCU is well-situated to participate in the program, as the campus sits on the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee people and is close to the Qualla Boundary – the territory held as a land trust for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). Also, WCU’s Cherokee and Indigenous Studies Program and the Cherokee Center have a history of collaboration with the EBCI.
SIGP supports American Indian, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students. The program was created to address the dramatic underrepresentation of Native American students in STEM fields by creating pathways for undergraduate Indigenous students to mentoring, research opportunities, community and funding.
“Closing that gap of representation is important for many reasons,” said Britt Lundgren, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UNC Asheville. “The process of advancing scientific understanding is vastly improved when those with a diversity of viewpoints and lived experiences participate. But more fundamentally, improving human understanding through science is an exciting pursuit, which should be equally accessible to all.”
In 2020, due to the efforts of Trey Adcock, director of American Indian and Indigenous studies, UNC Asheville became the first primarily undergraduate institution to join SIGP. Despite the difficulties of launching a new program during a pandemic, UNC Asheville students have presented at conferences and continuously received support for research and graduate school applications.
At the beginning of the fall 2018 semester, there were 21 EBCI students enrolled at UNC Asheville, with a total American Indian student population of 26. As the result of intentional and sustained action, UNC Asheville’s student body included 85 students who self-identified as Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Native Pacific Islander by 2022. Some of the actions that supported this growth are the creation of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies minor, support for the Cherokee language program, and admissions agreements with the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET).
WCU’s participation in SIGP will be coordinated by Ben Steere from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology; Frankie West in the Department of Chemistry and Physics; Frank Forcino in the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources; and Andrew Denson, director of Cherokee and Indigenous Studies.
“The grant will help to establish a joint UNC Asheville-WCU student chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and build a larger and more active regional cohort of students engaged in scholarship-funded STEM research,” said Lundgren. “The funding will also enable outreach activities with Cherokee High School and help current students connect with graduate students, faculty, and alumni from the greater SIGP community.”
Seth Penn, an undergraduate at WCU, was able to attend the AISES conference in 2023 thanks to joint UNC Asheville and WCU funding.
“The AISES conference in Spokane, Washington, was a transformative experience for me as an Indigenous college student. The vibrant atmosphere, rich cultural exchange, and insightful discussions created a unique space for connection and empowerment,” Penn said. “Engaging with fellow attendees and industry professionals allowed me to gain valuable insights into STEM fields while celebrating and embracing my Indigenous identity.”
Penn is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Tribe of Northeast Alabama and chairman of Digali’, WCU’s Native American student organization.
UNC Asheville Sloan Scholar Gabbie Moneymaker (Squaxin Island) was also able to attend the AISES conference, where she was awarded third place for her undergraduate research presentation. She went on to conduct botany research abroad in Colombia and is now a Ph.D. student at UC-Riverside in plant biology.
Adcock said that through working together, the Sloan Foundation, UNC Asheville and WCU, can have an increased and wider positive impact.
“SIGP is important because it helps disrupt the marginalization of Native student opportunities in STEM fields,” Adcock said. “I am so glad UNC Asheville and WCU are in partnership with Sloan on this endeavor, as it will potentially impact significantly more Native students in the WNC region and beyond.”