AdamsFor her master's thesis, Melinda Crow studied the effects of biochar—a soil enhancer first used by pre-Colombian indigenous tribes in the Amazon basin. Here, she works with Kevin Gibson, her plant sciences professor and mentor in the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership. (Photo by Vincent Walter)

​Home Away From Home

Sloan Foundation Helps Native American Students Pursue Graduate Degrees at Purdue ​

By Darrin Pack​ - Published May 18, 2015

It's not unusual for college students to feel homesick. But for Melinda Crow, the pain of separation from her native San Carlos Apache community in New Mexico was so severe it nearly cost her a dream handed down by her parents—the chance to earn a graduate degree in the plant sciences.

Dream Endangered

Crow's mother and father both served in the Air Force, but they encouraged Melinda to follow her own path. After completing a bachelor's degree in environmental science at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, Crow enrolled in the College of Agriculture at Purdue to pursue her master's.

It wasn't long before she felt a profound culture shock.

"The campus was so big," she recalls. "It was very different from where I had grown up and gone to school."

In the summer of her second semester Crow decided to pack up and go home to Albuquerque.

She might have stayed there, probably giving up on her education and pursuing a career in business, she says, if it had not been for the support she received from her mentors and peers in the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership program.

"My professor, Kevin Gibson, called me and told me he wanted me back," Crow says. "He did everything possible to make sure I succeeded."

Purdue a Leader

Melinda Crow
Melinda Crow. (Photo by Vincent Walter)

The Sloan program, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, was established at Purdue in 2007 to provide academic, financial and moral support to American Indian and indigenous students pursuing graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math—the so-called STEM fields.

Purdue is the lead institution in the Sloan consortium. The other partners are the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Arizona, University of Montana, Montana State University and Montana Tech.

Purdue might seem to be an unlikely hub for one of the nation's premiere Native American scholarship programs. As Felica Ahasteen-Bryant, director of Purdue's Native American Educational and Cultural Center, points out with a wry smile, "There aren't a lot of Indians in Indiana."

The state has no federally recognized tribes, and before Ahasteen-Bryant's appointment in 2007, Purdue had no Native American student organization.

There was, however, a small group of faculty and staff who saw a pressing need and set out to meet it.

"We had native students come here and struggle because they were in a strange environment with no role models or support system," says Ken Ridgway, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and member of the Lenape (Delaware) Nation, who has mentored many of the Sloan students.

Native Americans have historically been among the most underrepresented minority groups in STEM fields.

According to statistics from the Sloan Foundation, only 48 research doctorates were awarded to American Indian and native peoples in 2012. Indigenous people account for 1.2 percent of the U.S. population yet received just 0.3 percent of all doctorates awarded that year, down from 0.5 percent 20 years earlier.

New Generation of Scholars

One of the main goals of the Sloan program is to create a new generation of Native American scholars who can be role models for future scholars in the STEM fields.

"That's really critical," says Raymond RedCorn, a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and biological engineering and member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma. "When you don't see other people who look like you, you question if it's doable."

So far, 16 Sloan students have earned master's or doctoral degrees at Purdue. Many of them have returned to their communities to work with young people.

Crow completed her master's thesis in botany and graduated from Purdue in 2012. She is now a permanent faculty member at Haskell, where she mentors low-income native students who are the first in their families to attend college.

"It's an honor to be working here and helping to foster relationships between Haskell and Purdue," she says. "Now I have an opportunity to help make those transitions easier."