Successful STEM Training: It's in the Blood

North Carolina college churns out successful doctors.

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Dr. Kenneth Kitts is provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He holds a doctorate degree in political science from the University of South Carolina.

To understand why UNC Pembroke is successful in educating and training American Indian students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), turn back the clock to 1970.

Only 40 years ago, health and healthcare in the rural community surrounding the university were mired in the Third World. There was one American Indian doctor and pharmacist in Pembroke, home to the Lumbee, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, with a current membership of more than 50,000. The American Indian community realized that, in order to improve the quality of life, more healthcare professionals needed to be educated and trained. From that moment, all STEM professions became the focus of an intense and, ultimately, successful pilgrimage.

Today, the university has turned out more than 50 American Indian doctors. Its graduates are successful in medical schools, and East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine reserves two slots a year for UNCP graduates. This year, three American Indian doctors--all female--opened general practices in Pembroke.

The university's remarkable success in graduating students in STEM-related fields is not only in the increasing number of doctors and nurses in that community, but also the number of American Indians who graduate with science degrees in general. A recent national survey of colleges and universities found UNCP ranked third for graduating American Indian students in the biological and biomedical sciences and sixth in health professions. In 2011, 100 percent of UNCP's nursing graduates passed the national licensure examination on their first attempt.

An American Indian's decision to study medicine provides that graduate enviable status. As physicians, they will be among the community's most revered tribal members. This status may explain why approximately half of the American Indian students entering UNCP list medical school as their goal. These students go on to become doctors, nurses, physician's assistants, physical therapists, pharmacists, research scientists, and professors.

From its earliest success as a teachers' college, UNCP decided to expand its STEM offerings to help the community fulfill its need for doctors, engineers, and scientists. As a result, the university began building a strong science faculty and support programs, such as The American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the North Carolina Health Careers Access Program. Undergraduate research programs, internships, and one-on-one advising were established to nurture future doctors at UNCP. The school offers an American Indian Studies Department, a Native Student Organization, a museum dedicated to American Indian culture, and powwows on campus, all in the name of cultivating a campus environment that supports diversity in its student body and attracts strong students, American Indians among them.

That diverse student body begins with UNCP's targeted recruitment of future STEM professionals out of local schools, beginning as early as elementary school. As a result, the number of American Indian students at UNCP has increased to approximately 1,000. At the leadership level, University Chancellor Kyle R. Carter works with the Lumbee Tribal Council to rally its support behind the recruitment program and to improve high school graduation rates. Additionally, Chancellor Carter works with organizations such as the Lumina Foundation for Education and its Minority-Serving Institutions-Models of Success Program, which seeks to increase college completion among first-generation, low-income, and minority students.

Education is revered within the Lumbee; a tribal elder is credited with saying, "It's hard to get education out of our blood, once it gets in." UNCP's effort to build up and support its American Indian student body is paying off. American Indians have better college attendance rates at UNC institutions than all North Carolinians combined, 28.4 vs. 22.3 percent (2008-09). The gap has more than tripled in favor of Indian students since 2004-05. At UNCP, American Indians have a four-year graduation rate 15 percent higher than that of other students. This fact is a stunning turnaround from 1998, when American Indians trailed other students by 22 percent.

Too often, American Indians are pushed aside in the conversation on recruiting and educating minority students. However, at UNCP, we understand the importance this student population plays in our culture and overall academic success. There is much to celebrate during November's Native American Heritage month as the tide of American Indian STEM professionals flowing from UNCP continues to rise.