Charlene Healy chose to enroll in Montana State University’s College of Nursing, in part, because it provided a high level of both academic and personal support to American Indian students through a unique program known as CO-OP.
Healy, an enrolled member of the Assiniboine tribe who grew up on the Fort Belknap Reservation in northern Montana, said the connections she made and support she received through the MSU’s Caring For Our Own program, or CO-OP, were invaluable. Healy graduated from MSU in December.
“I always call CO-OP my family away from home,” Healy said. “All of us Native nursing students are very close.”
Now, the MSU College of Nursing has won a three-year grant totaling more than $1 million that will enable it to continue providing support to American Indian and Alaska Native students through CO-OP.
The $1.08 million grant from the Indian Health Service is intended to increase the number of American Indian and Alaska Native students in the College of Nursing, provide scholarships for those students and increase their leadership skills, and help Native graduates succeed early in their careers.
The funds will be used to provide scholarships to students and to fund staff members in the College of Nursing who serve as advisers and mentors to students, according to Brian King, associate director of CO-OP and an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe.
King added that as part of the grant, CO-OP students will also begin mentoring their peers in a more formal way.
“This year we officially matched together upper division nursing students with new or lower division students to help them be aware of what to expect as a nursing student, and also to provide a social connection with another student who has already successfully experienced navigating the rigorous academic environment,” King said.
The grant also enables MSU to continue supporting CO-OP graduates as they prepare to take the NCLEX- RN, the licensing exam for entry into professional practice, and look for employment.
“As part of this grant, we will continue to track and support alumni for up to two years, and we can continue to provide support and offer trainings during this time,” King said.
The grant provides important resources to help further the mission of CO-OP, which is designed to develop a highly skilled and culturally competent nursing workforce within American Indian and Alaska Native communities, according to Helen Melland, dean of the MSU College of Nursing.
“The Caring For Our Own program at MSU provides crucial support to our American Indian and Alaska Native students,” Melland said. “We’re thrilled to have been awarded this grant and look forward to continuing to help these students succeed.”
CO-OP was launched at MSU in 1999 after Kay Chafey, now an MSU professor of nursing emerita, observed a need for culturally aligned and competent care on American Indian reservations, King said. Chafey recognized that educating American Indians who could return to their own communities was a powerful way to help change the health care environment for American Indian people.
According to King, American Indian and Alaska Native nurses are under-represented in nursing, making up less than one percent of the professional nursing workforce. By increasing the number of nurses who can provide clinically excellent and culturally competent care to American Indian and Alaska Native populations, King and other CO-OP administrators believe healthcare for, and ultimately the health of, American Indian and Alaska Native people can be improved.
At MSU, Chafey started informal efforts to help American Indian students by assuming responsibility for advising about 10 American Indian nursing students. She sequenced their schedules so that they took classes they tended to be most successful in first. She worked to arrange a childcare cooperative, so that Native American students helped look after each others' kids when they weren't in class, later working with the ASMSU Day Care to meet CO-OP childcare needs. She also worked to be open to cultural differences.
Chafey quickly noticed that students who received even a small amount of help were more successful than those who didn't. In 1996, she and a colleague submitted a grant proposal to the federal government's Health Resources and Services Administration's (HRSA) Division of Nursing to create a formal program to support American Indian nursing students, and CO-OP began receiving funding in 1999. HRSA and the Indian Health Service now both support the program.
Over the years, the program has helped nearly 70 American Indian and Alaska Native students earn degrees in nursing, King said, with 33 students currently part of the program. King said the program’s numbers have been on the rise in recent years, and CO-OP would like to increase the number of students in the program to about 40.
He added that Healy is one example of students who have not only benefitted from the program, but who have the potential to help improve healthcare in Indian country.
Healy grew up wanting to be a nurse. After graduating from Aaniiih Nakoda College, a community college on the Fort Belknap Reservation, she began looking at nursing programs. CO-OP caught her eye right away.
“I wanted a place where I would be supported. CO-OP just felt right,” Healy said.
She enrolled at MSU and quickly grew to love the supportive network and community that CO-OP provided.
“At the beginning of the semester, we always had orientation,” Healy said. “I loved that. We had talking circles, and it felt so good to open up and hear other people talk about financial problems or trying to find a daycare. We could all relate to each other and communicate.
“It was a good network, and we kept in contact throughout the semester,” Healy added. “We would call each other, encourage each other. It really helped, and it went beyond nursing.”
Healy, 22, graduated from MSU in December with a bachelor’s degree in nursing – she is the first in her family to graduate from college – and is now preparing to take her licensing exam in February. After that, she hopes to work for two years at an IHS facility in Browning or Crow Agency to repay a loan obligation. Then, she would like to work in an emergency room before going back to school to become a nurse practitioner.
While CO-OP has a vision of changing the quality of healthcare for American Indian communities, King said, that’s not the only goal of the program.
“Ultimately we want our students to be very well-qualified and well-trained nurses in any situation,” King said. “Having Native American students who are well-equipped and well-qualified is valuable to MSU, Montana and the workforce in general.”
More information about the Caring For Our Own program is available online at http://www.montana.edu/nanurse/.
Contact: Brian King, CO-OP associate director, (406) 994-2710 or email@example.com