The first time she went to college, Shelene Head figured she’d be a nursing major. But it didn’t take long for her to realize that nursing wasn’t the career she was looking for.
“It wasn’t for me,” Head said. “I knew that right away.”
This realization inspired Head to take a break from college. A few years later, when she returned to Bemidji State University (BSU), she was determined to get it right.
“When I came back to school I was looking through the majors, trying to decide which felt right for me,” Head said. An enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, she said she saw too many people in her community struggling with substance use. She wanted to find a career where she could help address this problem. So she decided to major in psychology.
Now, as Head’s second year back at school wraps up for the summer, things feel different. “I feel like I chose the right major this time,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to returning to school in the fall.
Head believes that one reason a psychology major is working for her is the fact that she’s part of Indigenous Students in Psychology Training (InPsyT), a BSU psychology department program designed to prepare American Indian students for careers in psychology through mentorships with Indigenous psychologists and mental health professionals.
As part of their participation in InPsyT (pronounced “insight”), Head and other Native scholars receive culturally specific support and mentorship, with a goal of helping them complete their undergraduate degree and go on to graduate studies in psychology. The program, which in its first year was supported with a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Educational Innovations Grant, recently was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation. The Blandin money will help the program expand for the next three to four years.
Head explained that she appreciates InPsyT’s focus on what’s coming up after she earns her undergraduate degree.
“Grad school is one of the main topics we talk about in InPsyT,” she said. “They have given me so much information about grad school and my options and what to expect about this process.” The culturally specific support she gets through the program, including weekly meetings with other participants and special events featuring Native American drumming and singing, has helped her to feel like she belongs.
That sense of belonging, of being part of something larger than herself, helps Head feel like she will be able to meet her goal of one day earning a master’s degree in psychology. “That is one of the best things about InPsyT,” Head said. “All the professors know what it is like to go through this kind of program, all that anxiety and worry that I’m experiencing. They are really supportive, they’ve been there themselves, and they understand just what kind of things I need.”
Encouraging Native undergraduate students to seek graduate degrees in psychology is a central reason for the InPsyT program’s existence, said John Gonzalez, BSU professor of psychology and one of InPsyT’s co-directors.
“We wanted to provide support for Native students who are psych majors,” said Gonzalez, a member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation. “We would love to create a pathway for them to go on to graduate school for master’s or Ph.D. programs, because the world needs more Indigenous psychologists or psychology professors.”
Completing an undergraduate degree is difficult. Earning a graduate degree is even tougher. When they designed the InPsyT program, BSU psychology faculty made sure to embed elements of support that could buoy Native students like Head and help them succeed in meeting their goals.
Angela Fournier, BSU psychology professor and an InPsyT co-director, explained the program’s key elements of support.
“We do biweekly mentorship and check-in meetings,” she said “We have an orientation. We start orientation and all of our check-in meetings with drumming and song and a prayer. We create a space where students can talk about their home lives and that part of their identity.”
Another central part of the program is its commitment to hosting potential mentors and role models for students, said Mark Standing Eagle Baez, assistant professor of psychology and an InPsyT co-director.
“We bring in doctoral-level practitioners, researchers who are Native, that stress the importance of Western methodology as well as the traditional Indigenous methodologies,” Baez said, explaining that he is of Mohawk/Pawnee/Coahuiltecan and Mexican descent.
“We continue to provide that support throughout the academic year so that Indigenous students can see Indigenous professionals who embrace their culture and continue to motivate them.”
Head said that the InPsyT program’s focus on building connections between Indigenous students and psychology professionals has helped her to feel like she has a built-in community that can support her through stressful times.
“Toward the end of the spring semester the group mostly became for me a support system that I could look forward to and lean on, especially during the crunch time,” she said. “You are putting in so many hours studying and taking tests and writing papers: To be able to talk some of that through during those InPsyT check-ins, that helped me a lot.”
Response to shortage
Though he and his colleagues are biased — “Because we are psych professors we think everyone should major in psychology,” he joked — Gonzalez said that there is a significant shortage of mental health professionals in Native communities. “There is a huge need. There are not enough people going into the practice nationwide, but that issue is multiplied many times over in Indian Country.”
The idea of creating the InPsyT program came from Sarah Cronin, BSU assistant professor of psychology and an InPsyT co-director. “I was on a walk with Dr. Fournier and I mentioned this idea I had,” she said. She and her colleagues had been talking about the psychologist shortage in Native communities for years, and this felt like a ground-level response to the problem.
Fournier was excited about this idea: “She said,” Cronin recalled, “‘You have to reach out to Dr. Gonzalez.’”
When his colleagues told him about InPsyT, Gonzalez was on board. He had been thinking about creating a proactive program that addressed what he calls a “huge shortage and need for Native psychologists at the master and Ph.D. levels” at the source, by pulling together and supporting a group of Native undergraduate students.
“One of the driving goals of this program is to ensure that these students are getting through their undergraduate degree so they can go on to get a graduate degree and eventually come back and serve their communities,” he said.
The program’s founders all knew that if they wanted to attract and retain Native students like Head they had to design a program that was built around Indigenous cultural expectations.
“This is a place where students can be themselves and not have to compromise their cultural norms,” Cronin said. “We want our students to feel safe and respected. We want to make this program work for them.”
The program launched in 2021, with six students in the cohort. The Blandin Foundation money helped the department to grow the cohort to nine students in 2022, Cronin said: “The students who were in the previous year get to stay in the program and continue to get the support. It is a real snowball effect.”
The close mentoring relationships established in the InPsyT program means that professors build stronger connections with their students, Fournier said. At the beginning of the academic year, professors are assigned individual InPsyT “mentees” from the cohort: “We check with them at the beginning of the school year, at midyear and at the end, to see how things are going,” she explained. “We also check in if they don’t go to the InPsyT meetings. I think that is important.”
Cronin said that she believes the trust that these kind of mentoring relationships foster should help more Native students meet their academic requirements. “We spend a lot of time talking about the shortage of psychologists. That’s important, but it misses the connection and relationship and trust that this program is developing. The biggest thing I’ve learned is just how important true mentoring relationships are — not only for the students but also for myself.”
Cronin is Head’s academic adviser. “She guided me along and suggested I apply for InPsyT,” Head said. “I got in. I’m glad I did. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but it has exceeded my expectations for sure.”
The InPsyT program’s focus on building connections has helped Head feel like she’s found an academic home for herself on campus. “I couldn’t have met or known other Indigenous psychology majors if it weren’t for this program,” she said. “InPsyT connected me with them, and that makes me feel more like I belong here.”
A destination school
In part because of the university’s location in northern Minnesota’s Indian country, staff and administrators at BSU feel it is important to create programs like InPsyT that focus on recruitment and participation of Native scholars.
“When I joined Bemidji State in 2018, I was aware that one of the strategic goals of the institution was to become a destination university for Native American communities,” Cronin said. “We see InPsyT as a central part of that.”
Having two Indigenous faculty members in the department also helps potential students see that BSU could be an academic destination for them, Gonzalez added. “I think it is somewhat rare that you have more than one Native faculty member in a department, especially at the undergraduate level.”
The InPsyT program cohort is a unique collection of students brought together by their heritage and their interest in supporting the mental health of others, Fournier said. “One of the unique things I’ve witnessed in our biweekly meetings is it is a space where there is all Indigenous students. I’ve been at BSU since 2008. This is the first time I’d seen all Indigenous students working together that way. They aren’t always able to be in other academic settings and talk about their culture.”
The Blandin Foundation grant will support InPsyT for three to four more years. The program’s co-directors hope to eventually make InPsyT self-sustaining, so it can continue into the future without the need to continually search for grant funding.
“We would like it to become a natural part of what we do at BSU in the psychology program,” Fournier said. “We would like to support a great group of Indigenous students who are active in InPsyT and go on to graduate-level work and become psychologists.” And there’s another dream behind the program, she added: “It would be wonderful to have an InPsyT student — or two or four — teach in our department someday.”