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Partnership with Lac du Flambeau helps students expand cultural competence

April 17, 2012
 Lac du Flambeau partnership
Social work major Rachel Fleming works with elementary students in a classroom at the Lac du Flambeau public school. Fleming was part of a UW-Eau Claire program that brings 20-30 university students from a variety of majors to the northern Wisconsin reservation each semester as part of a cultural immersion program.
EAU CLAIRE — When Oscar Collins signed on to volunteer in a school on a Native American Indian reservation in northern Wisconsin, he was expecting to find a run-down school filled with exhausted teachers trying to make due with outdated materials and equipment.

So Collins was surprised last fall when he found himself standing with 20-plus other UW-Eau Claire students in a newly renovated special education classroom listening to a Lac du Flambeau teacher talking passionately about using iPads and other technology to better connect with her students.

"When I arrived I was surprised to see the school very up-to-date and the programs offered to students very advanced," said Collins, a senior social work major who grew up in California but has lived in Wisconsin for eight years. "When I was in middle school I never had classes and programs as advanced as these."

However, he quickly learned that while the grant-funded state-of-the-art classrooms and the dedicated teachers that fill the Lac du Flambeau schools were impressive, many of the children still were struggling academically and socially, said Collins, who volunteered at the school as part of a UW-Eau Claire-Lac du Flambeau partnership program. Teachers and administrators talked about the negative impact that poverty, violence, substance abuse, gangs and other factors have on their students, even those in the youngest grades, he said.

"Many of the students I met were experiencing hard times at home," said Collins, who spent his time in a middle school science classroom and worked with youth in an after-school program. "Talking with teachers, it was clear that many homes did not have the support that children need to develop healthy social behavior. This was reflected when I worked one-on-one with students. Many did not see past high school and others just wanted to do nothing."

The one-on-one time with the students and their teachers gave him a better understanding of the issues facing Lac du Flambeau youth, Collins said. It also helped him appreciate the meaningful work being done by educators and others to address those issues, he said.

"My goal was to get a better understanding of Native Americans and understand how years of oppression have impacted their lives and socioeconomic status," said Collins, who will graduate in May with a degree in social work. "This has definitely helped me grow and better understand the issues Native Americans deal with. But I know every client I work with will have a different story to tell and a different experience. As a future social worker, it is important that I immerse myself in as much cultural diversity as possible. In my profession, I will work with all types of clients coming from all walks of life so it is essential that I am culturally competent."

Helping students become more culturally competent is among the goals of the long-standing program that UW-Eau Claire offers in partnership with the Lac du Flambeau nation, said Dr. Mike Axelrod, director of the Human Development Center at UW-Eau Claire.

Each semester, the program takes 20-30 UW-Eau Claire students from a variety of majors three hours north to the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation where they are immersed in the Ojibwe culture.

Students complete a two-day orientation early in the semester, during which they learn about the Ojibwe people by visiting tribal museums, including a historic Native American village that many students say is a trip highlight. They also tour schools and meet with teachers, health care providers and community leaders to gain an understanding of the area and its people.

Those same students then return to Lac du Flambeau later in the semester for two days, when they work directly with students, teachers, community members and health care professionals. They volunteer in reservation schools, shadow a reservation social worker, work in the reservation health center and interact with American Indian youth and their families.

"The program brings students together with American Indian children and families, and helps them better appreciate the many challenges American Indians face in Wisconsin," Axelrod said. "It also helps students better understand how multiple professions work to together to provide education, health and behavioral health services to a culturally diverse population."

As part of the program, students also spend time with UW-Eau Claire faculty from several disciplines including education, nursing, social work and psychology.

"This interdisciplinary exposure allows students to better understand the delivery of educational, behavioral and health services from multiple perspectives," Axelrod said of the program, which began in 1995. "This is a unique and valuable learning experience for our students."

Axelrod said research consistently shows that the program enhances students' knowledge of American Indian and Ojibwe culture, their recognition and understanding of challenges facing American Indian people, their awareness of cultural biases and their understanding of the skills needed to provide educational and healthcare services to American Indian people.

"Students have rated the experiences as very favorable in terms of taking part in a valuable learning experience," Axelrod said of the extensive follow up he does with students. "Our research shows that students gain an increased understanding of the history, challenges and needs of the Ojibwe people, as well as an understanding of specific issues they face like economics, education and health care. Students also are more likely to respect cultural differences as a result of their participation in the program."

Sadie Bassette is among those who said the experience has made a lasting impression on her. The senior communication sciences and disorders major is familiar with the Lac du Flambeau area because she grew up in Rhinelander, just a few minutes from the reservation.

"Growing up so close to the reservation, my parents did a great job making sure I was well informed of the history of the Native Americans in our area," Bassette said. "But this experience provided me with knowledge of the tribe today, such as how the tribe preserves and celebrates its culture despite everything that has happened in the last few hundred years."

Immersing herself in the school and its students for several days gave her a new appreciation and respect for the teachers and the students, Bassette said.

"I fell in love with the school," Bassette said. "The teachers and staff were so welcoming, and you could tell how much they care for and advocate for their students. There is such a respect and celebration of the tribe's culture throughout the school, which was something I had never experienced before."

Graduate student Kimberly Gilland, Hudson, signed on for the immersion experience because she planned to write her communication sciences and disorders thesis on language and the Native American population.

"Although the thesis idea fell through, it was still an incredibly rewarding experience," said Gilland, who shadowed a speech-language pathologist and a student while at the school. "I didn't know what to expect, but many things impressed me. Everyone at the school was extremely kind. It was great meeting administrators and teachers, and learning their backgrounds and experiences at the school. The students were kind and curious."

During her school visits, Gilland attended meetings about students, sat in on sessions with students and worked on an evaluation of a student with a physical therapist. She observed a student in the structured setting of a classroom and the less structured time in physical education class. She also sat with the student at lunch and talked with some of his classmates and his aide.

"It was wonderful being able to shadow a student and a professional," Gilland said. "It allowed me to not only interact with the students, but also view some of the behind-the-scenes work that SLPs and other school professionals do while they are not seeing students."

Gilland knew little about Native American culture or history before participating in the program, but found herself fascinated by the people and stories she heard.

"Learning about the history of the people and listening to the stories that the members of the tribe shared was amazing," Gilland said. "It provided me with a lot of information and visual examples that I would never have had the opportunity to experience."

The overall experience, Gilland said, solidified her goal to someday work in a school that serves a more diverse population.

It's important for a university to provide these kinds of learning experiences so students are better prepared to succeed professionally and personally, Gilland said.

"Even in a time of budget cuts, these kinds of experiences allow for a type of learning that classrooms and textbooks cannot provide," Gilland said. "It's important for students to learn about people with different cultural backgrounds, a different socioeconomic status or different life experiences."

Bassette agreed, noting that she hopes to work as a speech-language pathologist in a school-based setting so she tries to take advantage of opportunities that put her in diverse educational settings.

While the value of being culturally competent is obvious in the profession she has chosen, exposure to diversity is important to all students regardless of their major, Bassette said.

"I think learning about different cultures firsthand is the answer to a lot of our world's problems," Bassette said.

For more information about UW-Eau Claire's partnership with Lac du Flambeau, contact Dr. Mike Axelrod at 715-836-5020 or



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