Native American Students Connect Through Culture

Native American Center for Health Professions graduation ceremony
Brianna Boston-Kemple and Alexandra DeSautel, center back row, at the Native American Center for Health Professions graduation ceremony

Each month during the semester, 10 Native American nursing students gather in Cooper Hall to share the highs and lows of the previous month. After filling their plates with food, group members settle into their seats—set up in a traditional talking circle—and take time to connect.

These gatherings are part of the Success Through Recruitment/Retention, Engagement, and Mentorship (STREAM) program, launched three years ago to increase the number of Native American nurses in the workforce. The program’s greatest impact is the relationships the students forge with each other, say group facilitators Haley Burkhardt, STREAM coordinator, and Melissa Metoxen, community and academic support coordinator of the Native American Center for Health Professions (NACHP).

From a lack of cultural awareness, to low numbers of Native American peers, to confusion about available resources, to outright racism—Native American students face a number of challenges, both in and out of the classroom. Native Americans are a small population on campus and the nursing school’s population—just 17 students, according to the Registrar’s office — is even smaller. While STREAM is not meant to address all of the issues Native American students face head-on, it is designed to attract more Native American students to nursing and offer targeted and culturally appropriate support once they are enrolled in the School.

“UW–Madison can be a big, daunting place for students of color, so this community that the students and STREAM staff are building could be the difference between a Native nursing student feeling welcomed and supported or possibly feeling isolated.” —Haley Burkhardt, STREAM coordinator

Fostering community is a key facet of STREAM. Brianna Boston-Kemple ’19 and Alexandra DeSautel ’19 both appreciated having a group of people who were going through similar struggles whom they could lean on for support. DeSautel says she often felt pressure from her non-Native peers to be the “spokesperson” on Native American-related topics in class, and the monthly talking circles provided a safe space to talk about shared experiences.

“Being able to speak up when things aren’t going well and feel like people care about what you’re saying is really powerful,” says Boston-Kemple, who joined STREAM during her first year in nursing school. Boston-Kemple and DeSautel were the program’s first two graduates last May.

STREAM also provides a foundation for Native students to engage in the self-reflection and discovery that is often a part of the undergraduate experience but that can be particularly challenging for Native students when they feel isolated from their communities and peers. The group often attends cultural events and takes field trips together. Ireland Guenther, a junior who joined STREAM her freshman year as a pre-nursing student, says one of her favorite experiences was going wild ricing for the first time on an annual trip through NACHP. Harvesting the same foods as her ancestors made her feel more connected to her culture, says Guenther, who dreams of one day working as a family practice nurse practitioner in a tribal clinic.

“I don’t think I would have made it to where I am now without the support and guidance STREAM has given me,” she says.

Disclaimer: Success Through Recruitment/Retention, Engagement, and Mentorship (STREAM) for Native American Nursing Students is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of an award totaling $400,000 per year with 6% financed with non-governmental sources. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by HRSA, HHS, or the U.S. Government.