Building connections to culture and community-Native American students tell us that these connections are essential to their academic and clinical success. Washington State University (WSU) as a whole and the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences specifically have stepped beyond traditional institutional boundaries to make these connections happen.
University Level Connections
WSU began its quest to build partnerships with northwest tribes by recognizing their status as sovereign, self-governing nations. This recognition required that the university work with tribes by first establishing government-to-government relationships. In 1997 a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was officially drawn up and signed by the highest level administrator for the university, the president, along with representatives of the highest level of governance for specific tribes. To date, nine tribal nations have established a formal government-to-government relationship with WSU. Students have seen their tribal leaders treated with respect and their status as members of sovereign tribal nations honored.
To provide a mechanism for ongoing communication between the tribes and WSU, the MOU stipulated that a Native American Advisory Board to the president of the university be formed. One of the first actions taken by this board was to recommend that a Plateau Center for American Indian Studies be established. Understanding that this Plateau Center could only be successful if tribal representatives were actively involved in its development, university representatives, including administrators, staff, and faculty, began visiting tribal reservations. These visits provided an opportunity for tribal people themselves to share their values, strengths, needs, and concerns. As university representatives, our role was primarily to listen-and learn.
Reservation visits allowed a small number of us to learn from our tribal partners, but a means for a more broad-based information exchange that included students was needed. One way to accomplish this was through a conference. Thus, we began inviting Native scholars, including elders, to join us in putting together our first Plateau Conference. This conference was unique in that it focused on providing a forum for Native people to speak about who they are, what is important to them, and how we might work together. It was an educational-and emotional-experience as university personnel together with students heard about some painful historical experiences. At the same time, hope for the future was communicated through the tribal programs and initiatives that were presented. Potential areas to build collaborative and mutually beneficial relationships became apparent. Bringing Native American scholars to campus sent a strong message to students that the scholars' traditional knowledge and ways of interacting with the world were valued by the university community.
Department Level Connections
For the past 19 years the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at WSU has made special efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate Native Americans who are prepared for professional careers in speech-language pathology and audiology. Throughout this journey of almost two decades, we have learned much about connecting culture and community to student learning. Perhaps of prime importance has been the opportunity to complete observations, clinical practicum, and internships in Native communities. Students have seen first hand the needs of their communities and brought back the hard questions like, "How do I serve individuals with disabilities in my community, when disability is not even a word in my tribal language?" Or "What if a disability is perceived as a gift?" Or "How do differences in perceptions of time impact the assessment process?" Questions such as these have led to associated research projects.
For the most part, Native students have a strong desire to "give back" to their communities. Thus, carrying out research that can potentially benefit their specific home communities, as well as more broad-based Native populations, can be an important element in Native American student success. Some students have collaborated with faculty on research. For example, several students participated in the development and evaluation of a multimedia curriculum unit portraying Native perspectives of factors that should be considered in service delivery. Other students have chosen to interview their elders and other community members to identify perceptions of disabilities or perceptions of time and space. Several students have examined the English spoken by individuals in their communities to explore the existence of dialects that could be mistaken for language disorders.
An upcoming event sponsored by the Plateau Center for American Indian Studies will bring Native American graduates back to WSU to present their research findings as part of our first Native American Culture and Research Exposition. The Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences will be well represented as our graduates return to complete the circle. They will have started as undergraduates with a vision of "giving back" to Native people, moved on to graduate school where they developed the means to "give back" through clinical and educational service delivery and research, and now return as professionals and role models for our current Native students-"giving back" to their university and society. As faculty, we will have the opportunity to continue learning from our graduates and to further broaden our understanding of how to build programs that contribute to Native American student success in higher education. Connections with alumni now serve as the foundation to help us, as educators, in linking professional preparation to culture and community.
More information about the Native American professional preparation program in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences can be found at Washington State University Web site.