A Q&A with AISES’ Dr. Johnny Poolaw: Student Support and Native American Heritage Month
November is Native American Heritage Month, where we celebrate the accomplishments and culture of the United States’ Indigenous peoples. In 1986, President Reagan declared the last week of November as “American Indian Week,” and the celebration has since evolved into a month-long dedication to learning about the richness of Native American history each year.
The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), a Cooke Foundation Grantee, has worked to increase the representation of Indigenous peoples in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) for almost fifty years. This month, we sat down with Dr. Johnny Poolaw, Director of Student Success at AISES, and talked about two of the programs he oversees: the AISES Full-Circle Mentorship and Student Success Programs. We also discussed Native American heritage and the unique needs of Indigenous students. Dr. Poolaw is a citizen of the Delaware Nation, and also Kiowa, Comanche, and Chiricahua Apache.
Q: What exactly do the Full-Circle Mentorship Program and AISES Student Success Program look like, and why are they valuable in AISES’ mission of increasing Indigenous representation in STEM studies and careers?
A: The Student Success Program and the mentorship program go hand in hand. For the Full-Circle Mentorship program, we have volunteer mentors and other students that want support from a mentor. Currently, we have a large number of members signing up and being matched – 140 total. The mentors and the mentees all get together once a month and they have talking circles. They share information, share successes about how they’re going about their careers. The mentors and the mentees meet on their own.
I know how much mentorship helps our students and just helps in general along a career path in helping students to succeed. I just love that. I’m really happy and thankful to the Cooke Foundation for that because it’s so helpful for our students.
For our Student Success Program, we do monthly webinars in a series, based on college success and career success. It’s geared toward the students who might not know what field they want to go in to. We provide that not only as representation, but also because it’s informative for our students – there’s so many careers out there in the STEM field and we want to provide them with that glimpse of something that’s interesting, something that they may go into. It’s also empowering to see someone succeed in the STEM field because there’s not a lot of Natives in the STEM field. It’s super valuable for our members and our students to see that.
I know what it’s like to be in those high school students’ or college students’ shoes and you’re not really sure the direction, you’re not really sure where you’re going, so I always try to think, what would have best helped me? And so that’s the direction we take on my team.
Q: What are the unique needs of Indigenous students, and why is it important for those students to receive extra support? And Indigenous students in STEM, specifically?
A: The numbers for Indigenous students and Native students in college, they make up a very small percentage. In the STEM field, they’re an even smaller percentage. One of the main overall challenges for Indigenous students is being at a university where you might be the only one. That, in itself, is a challenge. A lot of times Indigenous students are coming from their tribal communities where there’s a lot of Native students and they’re surrounded by their family, their community. And they’re going to institutions where, like I said, they’re a very small percentage. That can be very challenging to go to an institution that really wasn’t designed for them.
There are also financial barriers, just like all students, pretty much. Since the representation of Natives in the STEM field is very small, not only are they going to be the only ones, most likely, on their campus, but they’re also not going to see that representation of faculty. They’re not going to have the leaders of the institutions look like them. That can also be challenging too. Especially for Indigenous ways of knowing, the ways of learning, that is probably different than what they’re used to on campus too.
I was an Indigenous student in the STEM field. My undergrad degree was in Zoology. It was very hard, going to a classroom and no one looks like you. I made it, but it was pretty hard. My outlook about animals and nature and how things are connected – it was never shared in the classroom. I really love my role because I can say I know exactly what it feels like to be those students. That’s why I try to do as much as I can to think of ways that we can provide these extra supports for our students.
Q: Did your experiences as an Indigenous person in college and academia help guide you to your current role at AISES?
A: Not only was I a student, but I was also an AISES member in college. I definitely think those experiences helped guide me, because I was able to look back and say, what helped me? How did I get through this?
My research for my Ph.D. was about the success of Indigenous males. This is my 21st year in higher ed working as a professional, and I’ve always worked in some form of supporting Indigenous students along the way. My entire life, I was either a student or someone on the other side supporting students. My whole journey has led me to help and really know the perspective of being a student.
So much of the research shows that the main drive for students in higher education to complete a degree is so that they can give back to their communities. For me, that’s what almost my entire life has been about. For the rest of my life, I don’t see anything else except giving back and supporting students in my community. My main focus has always been to help and support our people.
Q: What do you want others to know about Native American Heritage Month? As an Indigenous person, what significance does this month hold for you?
A: I think it’s so important just to share who we are, and of course acknowledge that we’re still here. We are still thriving. We are super educated. We are very successful. Our tribes are doing amazing things and our students are brilliant. We come from the very first scientists who were here on our lands, on these lands. Our people are still thriving and are still succeeding and are still connected to those early ancestors and a love of knowledge and knowing about where they come from, and our lands. That empowers me, but I know it empowers our young people as well. As an Indigenous person, I think it’s so significant that we share that – we’re still here and we’re still a part of our mother Earth and we’re still doing wonderful things. AISES is a prime example of all the excellence and brilliance that we’re doing. I love that I’m a part of that organization and get to work with our students.
View the AISES College and Career Readiness Guidebook here, developed by Dr. Poolaw and his team. The guidebook was developed specifically for Native students to navigate college and career readiness.