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– UM’s Initiative to Enhance Graduate Programs Accessibility Beyond Tokenism

Sierra Paske anticipated being the sole Native scientist in the chemistry lab, so she prioritized selecting a Ph.D. program at a university with a thriving Indigenous community elsewhere on campus.

“I was aware that I would be the only Native individual in my department when I entered graduate school, and that remains true even after four years,” Paske remarked.

Currently in her fourth year as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana, Paske not only teaches undergraduate courses but also engages in molecular research aimed at expediting the drug discovery process. Apart from her laboratory responsibilities, Paske serves as the treasurer of the Indigenous Graduate Student Association, a newly established group that fosters connections among Native students across various graduate departments.

Sierra Paske, pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Montana, aspires to inspire others from Indigenous backgrounds to pursue higher education opportunities.

According to the University of Montana, efforts to enhance inclusivity in graduate programs have been yielding positive outcomes, although significant challenges persist, hindering many students, especially those from historically marginalized communities, from pursuing postsecondary education.

Dean Ashby Kinch of UM’s graduate school emphasizes the importance of ensuring program accessibility for individuals from diverse backgrounds, not just as a moral obligation but as a core principle of top-tier academic institutions.

The university currently enrolls 2,040 graduate students, including those in the law school, with 123 identifying as Native American—a 64% increase since 2016. While this figure may appear modest, it defies national trends showing an 18% decline in Native American graduate enrollment from 2010 to 2020.

Kinch underscores the necessity of assembling diverse teams for optimal research outcomes, emphasizing that inclusivity is fundamental to both a pluralistic society and a research-oriented university.

Despite being predominantly white, UM is making strides towards inclusivity, with ongoing efforts to support underrepresented groups like Native American students. Niche’ Brown, the sole Native American in UM’s toxicology program, is poised to become the university’s first Indigenous Ph.D. graduate in biomedical science.

To address the lack of representation in STEM programs, Aaron Thomas, UM chemistry professor and Indigenous Research and STEM Education Director, advocates for a more diverse student body, particularly in fields with high economic potential like technology.

While progress has been made in creating a welcoming environment, challenges persist, with students often shouldering the burden of driving initiatives for change. Additionally, the financial strains of graduate programs, coupled with low stipends, pose obstacles for many students, particularly those with family responsibilities.

Sierra Paske highlights the crucial support provided by the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership, which has been instrumental in enabling Native students like her to pursue STEM fields at UM.

Looking ahead, UM aims to further enhance international recruitment efforts and foster a more inclusive graduate education environment. Despite the complexities involved, gradual progress is being made, with individuals like Paske paving the way for a more diverse and supportive academic community.