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Native American Studies master's degree student: One alumna's journey

Jenna Vater, double major American Indian Studies & public history, '12

As a freshman arriving at UW-Eau Claire, I had only a really fuzzy idea of what I wanted to do. I knew I liked helping people, but I wasn’t sure where to go from there. For my first year I took general courses to fulfill some requirements while I figured things out. I always had an interest in American Indian history, so I decided to take a few American Indian Studies (AIS) classes. Two professors I had at the time saw how much the subject interested me, and really encouraged me to continue to delve deeper. The field of American Indian Studies is about so much more than just history — you also learn about the resilience, hope, and strength of Native communities today. The history component, however, does help students to become familiar with the effects of colonization and how those continue to manifest themselves across Indian Country. After my freshman year, I declared an AIS minor; a year later, I declared a double major of AIS and public history.

The American Indian Studies program felt like home during my time at UWEC. The sense of camaraderie among the AIS majors and minors helped us all keep going through long readings, long papers, and long nights of studying. The intensity of the higher level courses made me a better writer and student. My professors became my mentors. Overall, I think the most valuable skill I learned was how to empathize with others and realize how their background can make their life experience very different from mine.

After much deliberation and many discussions with my mentors, I decided to continue on to get my M.A. in Native American Studies at Montana State University (MSU). The AIS program at UWEC gave me a solid, broad knowledge base about past and contemporary issues and events in Native communities. From there I honed in my focus on Native American education. I took classes at MSU that helped prepare me for the educational needs of Native students, and that gave me the skills to tailor curriculum and class structure for different learning styles. While I studied, I also taught an Introduction to Native American Studies course at MSU. This solidified my commitment to working with students. I wanted to serve Native communities by helping Native students realize and reach their full education potential.

After graduation it took a lot of patience and persistence, but I eventually accepted a position working for Girl Scouts of Alaska. I ran week-long camps for girls ages 5-17 in remote Yup’ik villages. My background in AIS helped me land the job. It also gave me the skills to realize how to make camp activities more culturally sensitive and inclusive. The experience in Alaska eventually lead to the position I am in currently.

I am the program coordinator for the University of Illinois’ Native American Pathways Program. My job is to recruit and support Native American students who want to become physicians or pharmacists in rural tribal communities. I work with young Native students to encourage them to consider health professions as future careers. I also advise Native undergraduate students who want to go to medical or pharmacy school by helping them choose classes and find financial aid. Lastly, I support students currently in my program for the University of Illinois’ medical and pharmacy schools in Rockford, IL. I work to be a good advocate and advisor by ensuring that my students do not feel they need to lose their Native identity to succeed in medical or pharmacy school. That identity is their strength, and I make sure they know it is valued and will help them in their future practice.

Without the AIS program, I don’t think any of this would have been possible. I never would have found my passion for serving Native communities and students. With the solid foundation I received from UWEC’s AIS program, I am now able to help Native students reach their full potential as physicians or pharmacists, which is turn can make an incredibly positive impact on the community they choose to serve.

Of the AIS faculty, I most closely worked with Dr. Heather Ann Moody, Dr. Debra Barker, Dr. Rick St. Germaine, and Dr. Wendy Makoons Geniusz.