Closed But Not Quiet

Faculty workshops and student research experiences move online as most tribal college campuses remain closed over the summer.

By Melanie Lenart

Students participating in the 2018 Aseto’ne Summer Institute held on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus in Omaha, Nebraska. The summer program is now being offered online. Photo courtesy of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Tribal colleges campuses are usually quieter in summer, but rarely empty. Many institutions provide academic enrichment programs for students, while faculty make time for research and professional development.

Continued closure of most campuses has brought a temporary halt to these on-campus activities. However, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), which represents the nation’s 37 tribal colleges and universities, is filling the gap by organizing a variety of virtual events, including workshops that prepare instructors for online teaching, virtual internships for students, and an online summer program focusing on health—which will be more timely than ever as tribal nations deal with illness and death from this coronavirus.

Students interested in biomedical health research, medical careers, behavioral health work and psychology still have time to apply for the virtual Aseto’ne Summer Institute on Health Research Training. The Cheyenne word Aseto’ne (pronounced Ah-stow-net) refers to taking the first steps in the context of growth.

“The whole focus is to introduce and interest TCU students in health research careers – it’s very timely and important, particularly given the terrible impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in Indian Country,” noted AIHEC Executive Director Carrie L. Billy in an email to Native Science Report

Some tribal nations continue to deal with high incidences of Covid-19, especially in the Southwest. According to a June 9 Arizona Republic article, the White Mountain Apache Tribe has now surpassed 1,000 cases, while the Navajo Nation has reported more than 6,000 cases, making them some of the hardest hit areas within the United States.

Reservations in the northern Plains are also remaining vigilant.

“We have reservations in Montana that are in complete lock-down. No access in, and nobody gets to leave,” said Reno Charette, project director for the summer institute. “So students under those conditions are trying to be students on top of having all their family in the house with them.”

With these concerns in mind, she and others have designed this year’s summer institute—which previously was offered for two weeks on-site in Nebraska—so that some students can work two hours a day while others could work at a faster pace and get through the material in two or three weeks. Charette said the course will have benchmarks that will allow students who reach them to receive a portion of the $1,000 stipend for completing the program. That way, their pursuit of knowledge will also provide financial incentives along the way.

Topics will include Community Based Participatory Research, designed to ensure research involves topics of interest and use to community members, and how to manage Institutional Review Board requirements—using an indigenized approach to replace standard IRB training, Charette said. Students also will learn how to write an abstract, how to prepare mixed-media presentations, and about the relevance of historical trauma and cultural resiliency to health.

The institute will feature lectures by instructors from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which has a biocontainment unit that makes it the hospital of choice for contagious diseases such as Ebola and Covid-19. Professors from the affiliated College of Public Health will also provide lectures, including at least one on contact tracing.

“I could see how contact tracing, with the pandemic and afterward, could be a great job opportunity for students,” Charette said. She pointed out that this kind of work is far more effective when done by a local member of the community than by an outsider.

The institute can accept 20 students—although Charette said they might be able to take more for this year, considering the budget savings from not providing transportation, food and lodging. Charette continues to work with a wide variety of partners to develop the programs and online activities, but the institute will launch on July 6. Even so, because of the online nature of the program, students can apply through the end of July. Interested students can reach her at

Online internships are a necessary adaptation to the pandemic, but the new approach might offer some useful lessons for the future.

AIHEC also is facilitating virtual internship and fellowship programs for students in the STEM fields. Alex Grandon, AIHEC’s STEM coordinator, said he has been working with the Department of Defense to convert the fellowships set up back in January so the 12 students selected for these projects can work online on a variety of projects.

In the past, the program paired a tribal college student with a research collaborator who served as a mentor for a 10-week program that was typically offered on site. This year, those programs are going online, but the focus on research and collaboration will remain intact. Grandon said students this summer will be working on a variety of projects for DOD, including researching the effect of radiation on the human body, the pros and cons of artificial intelligence in the context of battle, the development of synthetic body parts, neurological trauma from repeated concussion grenades, and simulations of weather in the context of topography.

Online internships are a necessary adaptation to the pandemic, but the new approach might offer some useful lessons for the future. Grandon said it could pave the way for more flexible approaches in the future, given that family commitments and other community involvement can make it challenging for some TCU students to participate in experiences that require lengthy travel.

Besides working as mentors in some of the virtual offerings described above, hundreds of TCU faculty members will be spending time this summer taking an online course in how to teach online.

Some 422 faculty members from TCUs applied to enroll in the free course AIHEC has organized, which will run from June 15 through August 9, explained Regina Sievert, AIHEC’s executive director of Innovation and Research.  The program was able to accept 330 faculty members, Sievert indicated.

The Association of College and University Educators are providing the course using a set curriculum, Sievert said, but each cohort of 30 people will also work with a co-facilitator from a TCU. Faculty members can expect to spend about three hours per weekly module, which include:

  • Developing Effective Modules and Microlectures;
  • Teaching Powerful Note-Taking Online;
  • Using Groups to Ensure Active Online Learning;
  • Using the Active Learning Cycle in Online Courses;
  • Planning Effective Online Discussions; and
  • Facilitating Engaging Online Discussions.

The AIHEC Board of Trustees requested the course, she noted. The board is composed of presidents of TCUs based in the United States.

“They had expressed a need to prepare for this onslaught of online instruction that has resulted as part of the pandemic,” Sievert said. “In truth, many of the presidents are recognizing that this is an opportunity for the colleges to build their capacity in online instruction.”

While shifting online can present challenges in rural areas where internet connections are slow or spotty, some TCU students are embracing online courses as a way to avoid driving long distances, in many cases, for in-person classes.

With the development of hybrid fellowships and internships and online and hybrid courses well underway, TCU students might find they have more opportunities to work from home or within their communities even in a post-Covid world.

Melanie Lenart, Ph.D. is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.  She has worked in academia since 1996 and with tribal colleges since 2015.

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