Montana State University

MSU College of Engineering program wins award

March 8, 2012 -- Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Julian Collins, director of Designing Our Community, a program aimed at recruiting and retaining Native American students for the College of Engineering at Montana State University, holds a trophy DOC received as a regional winner for the CollegeKeys Compact Innovation Awards given by the College Board. Also pictured are Sheree Watson, former DOC director, left, and Heidi Sherick, COE dean of undergraduate programs.   High-Res Available

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Designing Our Community, a program aimed at recruiting and retaining Native American students for the College of Engineering at Montana State University, was recently honored by the College Board as a regional winner for the CollegeKeys Compact Innovation Awards.

Julian Collins, DOC's director, said receiving the "Getting Through Award" and a $5,000 contribution from the College Board was a great affirmation for the program COE launched in 2003. With COE assistant dean for undergraduate programs Heidi Sherick and former DOC director Sheree Watson, Collins was in Las Vegas on Feb. 27 to receive the award during the College Board's Western Regional Forum.

"This honor is mostly about the great students we have," Collins said. "They come from Montana's seven reservations and often transfer in from the tribal colleges, and they represent the whole spectrum: Some of them are traditional four- or five-year students and some aren't; some are simultaneously raising families and/or working multiple jobs; some have other obstacles to overcome. Regardless of their circumstances, the students in our program are sticking with it and fulfilling the goal of Designing Our Community."

DOC graduated 10 Native American students during COE's 2011 commencement, the highest number on record at MSU, Collins said. MSU's percentage of Native American graduates is one of the highest among engineering programs in the United States.

"On top of that we have had the percentage of Native American Students in the College of Engineering increase to 3 percent from well below 1 percent," Collins said. "And on the retention side, we're seeing a 70-percent retention rate, which higher than the campus-wide rate among Native Americans."

All of the improvements line up with the College Board's goal of helping underserved students have a successful run through college, Collins said. As the program's new director, he gave credit for DOC's success to Watson's leadership abilities, which helped the program secure grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Toyota Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.

"She and Heidi Sherick wrote DOC's grants and (Watson) put in a huge amount of work getting this program up and running," Collins said. "So this award is really a testament to their efforts."

Award submissions were judged on a program's strategies for providing underserved students an affordable, accessible and successful college experience and their potential to spawn similar initiatives by other educators, institutions and policymakers.

Having its Native American students graduate and join the engineering workforce, especially on and around reservation lands, is the underlying goal of DOC, Collins said. "That is underlying the concept of Designing Our Community, because those students are the ones who return home and bring their own solutions to problems on the reservation, whether it's through road building, civil engineering or water-quality work."

In addition to offering extensive advising to students DOC offers a variety of programs to help students : Peer-Assisted Study Sessions, or PASS; a service learning seminar course; a summer study program; Teaching Engineering Applications in Math and Science, or TEAMS; and its EMPower Student Center, a minority engineering student center.

Robert Marley, COE dean, said having COE's program selected as a model is a huge boost to the program and to the college's efforts to bring Native Americans and other minorities into the engineering fields.

"The kind of recognition we've gotten from the College Board is hard to come by," Marley said. "And not that it's really what you seek when you start up a program like Designing Our Community, but when you are singled out by your peers it really means a lot. And I think it is certainly invaluable to the program."

Sherick agreed.

"It does not replace my pride in watching those kids cross the stage (during graduation), but it is rewarding to be recognized as a model program for retaining an under-represented minority group," Sherick said. "I think this just infuses more passion and enthusiasm in us for what we're trying to do."

Contact: Julian Collins, (406)994-6723 or