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Two years ago, when Joseph Bull first applied for his position as dean of Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University, he shared his vision of creating a destination university for Indigenous doctoral students in mathematics, statistics, physical sciences, engineering and computer science. Today, Dean Bull’s dream is coming to fruition, as PSU was one of 10 institutions, and the only one in the Pacific Northwest, selected to participate in the Sloan Centers for Systemic Change initiative. (Editor’s note: Joseph Bull serves on Underscore News' board of directors.)

“Oregon needs more diversity in its STEM workforce to meet industry needs and find the best solutions to our most pressing problems,” Bull, a citizen of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, said. “PSU has a responsibility to excel in this area and we have the expertise to be a destination for Indigenous STEM.”

The goal is to remove barriers such as funding and academic support, which will then lead to overall improved student outcomes, and ultimately create educational environments that are more effective and equitable for all.

“We know that we can make graduate education in STEM better for everyone,” Adam Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said in a statement last month. “But systemic change is hard. What stands out about these institutions is their level of commitment and readiness. These are campuses that have a vision for how to do better and are eager to take the next step.”

Over the course of the next two years, PSU will use the $250,000 seed grant to recruit, retain and invest in individual “Sloan Scholar” scholarships for eligible Black, Indigenous and Latiné doctoral students. In addition to diversifying programs, PSU hopes the grant will help bring systemic change by working toward equitable representation, supporting student success, and working to meet the needs of all students. Leadership believes this could become a model for other minority-serving institutions to follow.

A key component of this grant is laying a strong foundation for systemic change. The grant will also bring together faculty members from across programs to reconsider and expand on existing practices, as well as the joint development of new recruitment and retention strategies to better support underrepresented students in STEM graduate programs.

This is the first step of a multi-year, $30 million commitment by the Sloan Foundation’s Higher Education program. At the end of a successful two-year seed grant period, institutions will be eligible to apply for four-year, $1.4 million implementation grants from Sloan.

“I think this is the right time and the right place to do these things to make [PSU] a destination for Native STEM,” Bull said. “I think the university's committed to it, and this will help us implement some of the things we need to do to get to where we want to be.”

A citizen of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, Joseph Bull, dean of Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, is the only Indigenous person in the county to serve as a dean of an engineering school. He hopes to make Portland State University a destination of choice for Indigenous STEM. (Photo courtesy of Portland State University)

A wealth of Indigenous knowledge

As a first-generation college graduate, and now the only Native American to serve as a dean of an engineering school in the country, Bull knows how isolating academia can feel at times.

“I think back to my graduate school experience and how it’s probably similar to many folks that didn't feel like the program was really built for people of color, and that's a huge challenge,” he said.

While Portland State University takes pride in having the most diverse undergraduate student population in the science, technology, engineering and math fields in Oregon, it has room for improvement when it comes to recruiting and retaining a more diverse graduate and doctoral STEM student body. For many Black, Indigenous and Latiné students, the reality is they are often one of few, if not the only, students of color in their programs, according to the PSU Sloan Grant announcement.

The current makeup of these programs at PSU is overwhelmingly white and international students. Fifty-five percent of graduate students identify as white and 16.2 percent as international. Last fall just 12.5 percent identified as Hispanic/Latino, 2.9 percent identified as Black, and only 1.1 percent of graduate students identified as Native American/Alaska Native, according to institutional data.

Understanding this data, PSU plans to make Indigenous students central in outreach and recruitment efforts by strengthening relationships with local community and tribal colleges as well as leveraging current PSU’s undergraduate programs, like the National Science Foundation-funded EAGLES Program, which is a collaborative initiative to support low-income and underrepresented students in STEM at Yakama Nation’s Heritage University.

The Sloan grant will also bring together a select group of faculty from across the programs to reconsider existing practices as well as develop new and expand existing strategies for recruiting and supporting Black, Indigenous and Latiné students in STEM graduate programs.

“It's not enough to recruit people of color, particularly Native folks,” Bull said. “We have to have a framework and create an environment in which they'll thrive, and I think this is an important piece of moving forward in that area.”

Bull hopes that this approach will encourage more students to pursue research in areas often left out in Western science and culture, and instead tap into more Indigenized focused research.

“There is a wealth of Indigenous knowledge and culture that is directly applicable to STEM disciplines, such as ecology, water resource management, wildfire management, community building, and more,” Bull said.

Tong Zhang, assistant dean for inclusive innovation at Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, says that PSU wants to be a place that diverse scholars choose to attend for its excellence in research in the various STEM fields. She emphasized the importance of expanding holistic support and mentorship provided for students in 10 doctoral programs across the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“When we're thinking about diversifying STEM, it's often from a deficit standpoint, where its students lack something,” Zhang said. “This is an opportunity where we can really shine, and change that narrative and think about where students are not lacking something. Instead, they bring to us really innovative perspectives that we need to do a better job of cultivating and a better job of supporting.”

She says the university must be able to develop the pathways and follow through with programs that encourage undergraduates to begin thinking about pursuing a PhD, and ultimately make the PhD programs more attractive for all students.

‘Create an environment in which they'll thrive’

Students like Lydia Doza, Tsimshian, Haida, and Inupiaq, who is in her last semester at PSU, says having a community and feeling represented on campus helps keep her on the path toward graduation. Doza is researching quantum cryptography, which according to IBM refers to various cybersecurity methods for encrypting and transmitting secure data based on the naturally occurring and immutable laws of quantum mechanics.

As she prepares for graduation this fall, she says opportunities like the Sloan grant make her hopeful for more growth within the Indigenous community on campus.

“It makes me feel more optimistic for the future, that those younger than me will have an easier time than I did,” Doza said. “I think that's great.”

“I am considering doing a PhD at PSU,” she added. “It's definitely one of my top choices.”

Lead image: Graduating Indigenous students were gifted and wrapped in blankets during the 2023 Honor Day ceremony at the Native American Student & Community Center. (Photo by Tojo Andrianarivo)

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....