PRONUNCIATION GUIDE — Niganawenimaanaanig (ni-gah′-nah-when-nee-mah-nah′-neg)
In 2017, Bemidji State University’s Dr. Misty Wilkie realized a lifelong dream to support fellow and future nurses. Combining a $2 million, four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Nursing Workforce Diversity program and her experiences as an Indigenous woman, student nurse and professor, she created the Niganawenimaanaanig Indigenous Nursing Program at Bemidji State. Now, after a competitive application process, the program has been awarded another $2.2 million NWD grant to continue its work diversifying the nation’s nursing workforce.
The Niganawenimaanaanig – an Ojibwe word that translates to English as “we take care of them” – grant is one of 32 distributed by the HHS Nursing Workforce Diversity program for 2021.
At the core of the Niganawenimaanaanig program is a cultural experience that is grounded in Indigenous wisdom, teachings and values. The program’s structure, staffing and services provide students a supportive community away from home that encourages cultural identity and connectivity throughout their nursing education.
The Pilot Years
Based out of a cozy, first-floor lounge in Bensen Hall, the Niganawenimaanaanig program’s initial goal was to provide up to a dozen American Indian nursing students significant scholarships and immersive cultural support. In its first four years, the program exceeded all expectations.
“We accomplished every goal we had and actually surpassed the numbers we anticipated,” Wilkie said. “It was everything that I knew it could be and it’s awesome to see all of the pieces come into place.”
When the program launched, Wilkie wanted to minimize the health disparities that affect Indigenous people by increasing the enrollment of American Indian nursing students by 75% during the four-year pilot. The Niganawenimaanaanig program met and surpassed this goal, increasing enrollment by 316% since the program’s inception.
Prior to the creation of the Niganawenimaanaanig program, the highest documented number of American Indian nursing students at Bemidji State was six. By 2018, the program increased the number of Indigenous nursing students to 13, and two years later it doubled to 26 students.
To date, Niganawenimaanaanig has served 38 Indigenous students, representing 15 different tribal nations, and is averaging 21 students annually. The program has graduated 17 Indigenous nurses and celebrated a record class of seven in 2021. All program alumni are currently employed in medically underserved communities throughout the country.
One of the most notable aspects of the Niganawenimaanaanig program is its dedication to offering students financial support. In addition to scholarship funding, program participants also receive monthly stipends to offset program costs. Of the initial $2 million grant allocation, $521,390 was awarded in supporting program participants.
The pilot grant also sponsored the addition of two full-time staff members, Matt Hanson, grant coordinator, and Michelle Saboo, student mentor.
“To have a full-time student mentor on staff is 100% what our success rate is attributed to,” Wilkie said. “To have somebody there who knows and understands the students’ cultural background, what their experiences are and how those experiences affect their education is monumental.”
Saboo, who joined the Nigawenimaanaanig team in January 2020, said students in the program are often navigating academia while raising families, leading campus organizations and maintaining connections with their respective tribal nations.
“Through the program, we are able to foster supportive relationships among our students and with our program staff to help maintain our students’ strength and assist in their development as Indigenous scholars,” she said.
Further, Wilkie commissioned the American Association of Colleges of Nursing in 2017 to improve the Department of Nursing’s admissions process. Prior to the Nigawenimaanaanig grant funding, Bemidji State’s nursing program had already implemented a holistic review process for admissions, looking to diversify cohorts. With the help of AACN, the nursing department developed rubrics to review an applicant’s personal characteristics, letters of recommendation and life experiences in addition to GPA or entrance exam scores. The revised holistic admissions process was implemented in 2018.
The year prior to implementing the holistic review to its admissions process, the nursing program had one known minority student in the four-year program. In the years after the revised review, known minority students improved to 17%, 12%, 18% and 13% consecutively.
With new grant funding for 2021-2025, the Niganawenimaanaanig program will continue its work growing the Indigenous nurse population with expanded objectives the next four years:
- Strengthen resources and activities to sustain a culturally grounded, holistic support program dedicated to increasing the number of American Indian nursing students recruited, enrolled, retained and graduated from Bemidji State;
- Appraise annual holistic review process, determining and encouraging best practices with revisions to improve student diversity in the university’s baccalaureate nursing program;
- Maintain and foster relevant internal and external collaborative partnerships that support American Indian nursing student academic success;
- Utilize evidence-based strategies to continue providing culturally grounded, holistic student support services that encourage academic, peer and social connections;
- Promote multifaceted faculty recruitment and retention plan to attract and support culturally diverse nursing faculty;
- Support innovative mentorship opportunities that support and empower American Indian nursing student persistence through the rigors of their academic program; and
- Increase fiscal management resources and providing financial supports that reduce monetary barriers for students to pursue and obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
The additional $2.2 million grant will also allow the program to expand its scholarship and stipend programs as the Niganawenimaanaanig team anticipates that students will experience greater financial hardship than in previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To counteract this hardship, the program is increasing academic year scholarships by 100% from $4,000 to $8,000 and summer scholarships by 400% from $500 to $2,000. Monthly student stipends will also increase by 100% from $500 to $1000 and additional summer stipends will be available at $500 per session. These amounts are for Indigenous students admitted into the RN-BS or four-year pre-licensure program with full-time credits. Students enrolled part-time will receive prorated amounts.
“Part of American Indian culture is feeling the need to contribute financially to your family,” Wilkie said. “And oftentimes, students work so much that it interferes with their studying and prevents them from being successful. That’s why we offer stipends – it will help students avoid needing to have jobs outside of school. Studying will be their job.”
In addition to financial assistance, BSU’s application for the grant focused on the importance of keeping Indigenous students connected to their culture. Students are asked to participate in at least two cultural activities each semester such as powwows, campus or community Indigenous language tables, land-based cultural activities and traditional crafting.
“When our students move off the reservation and come to school, they miss their close-knit communities,” Wilkie said. “These activities will help connect them with other Indigenous students and provide that cultural support.”
Looking forward, Niganawenimaanaanig will establish a peer mentorship program that will pair junior or senior nursing students with new students for the academic year. Through monthly team activities and communication prompts from Saboo, upperclassmen will not only serve as role models for others but also enhance their leadership skills.
“The communal peer support of Niganawenimaanaanig has been an integral part of the success and retention of program students, as well as the recruitment of future classes for BSU’s Department of Nursing,” Saboo said. “Word of mouth from the positive experiences of current and former Niganawenimaanaanig members has inspired other aspiring nursing students to pursue their goals at Bemidji State.”
About the BSU Department of Nursing
Bemidji State University’s Department of Nursing is a fully accredited program that has been providing baccalaureate-educated nurses to the northern Minnesota region for more than 30 years. BSU offers two tracks to complete a bachelor’s degree – a four-year track for students just beginning their educations and a two-year degree completion program for students who already are licensed Registered Nurses with an associate’s degree or diploma.
When it began its nursing program in 1983, BSU had a single cohort in its Registered Nurse-to-bachelor’s degree completion program. In 2021, the RN-BS program expanded to 240 students from across Minnesota, supported by 18 full-time faculty. In response to regional needs, BSU also added a four-year pre-licensure program in 2007, which admits annual cohorts of approximately 55 students each year.
Support for Niganawenimaanaanig
The Niganawenimaanaanig program works closely with departments across campus including the American Indian Resource Center, Office of Admissions, Career Services and Financial Aid to address barriers that may affect Indigenous nursing students. Alongside numerous internal partners, the program has also gained the support of local tribal nations including the Red Lake Nation, Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth.
Support has also been received from several tribal colleges and universities in North Dakota, Minnesota and Kansas. Additionally, the program has partnered with high schools and entities across the region including Bemidji’s Mewinzha Ondaadiziike Wiigaming, Northwest Indian Community Development Center, Northwest Technical College and Indian Health Services.