Following a two-year hiatus, the Mid-America Transportation Center brought its Sovereign Native Youth STEM Leadership Academy back to in-person activities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
This year’s academy was held June 26 to July 1, and brought 32 high school Native American youths to campus.
“I’m so glad to be back on campus with these students,” said Gabe Bruguier, education and outreach coordinator for the center. “I’ve missed the interaction and being able to see them learn and grow over the course of the week.”
“A lot of them start the week shy or nervous. The university feels really big to them, but you see them break out of their shell and start to meet new people while having all of these new experiences. The difference in confidence between the first day and the last is amazing.”
The academy, co-sponsored by the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and the Mid-America Transportation Center, began in 2017, as part of the center’s educational mission to promote and support underrepresented students as they consider and pursue careers in STEM fields. The academy was held each year until the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed in-person activities in 2020 and 2021. It is open to Native American high school students and is free for participants, thanks to generous support from many entities, especially the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation.
The academy focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics activities, but also incorporates health and wellness modules and leadership development. This year, students in the academy traveled to the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center, University of Nebraska Medical Center, and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and spent time at various campus locations including Nebraska Innovation Studio, Campus Recreation, Dairy Store, Husker Bowling Center, and the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts. At each location, they participated in activities and discussions under the theme of “Native Youth for the Seventh Generation.” Students also got to meet, learn from, and speak with various Nebraska faculty and civic leaders.
“We chose the theme because it is a common theme in Native American life,” Bruguier, an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said. “It is a principle of decision-making that looks forward to benefit seven generations. Our activities this year are centered under that theme, with categories of cultural appreciation, preservation, health and wellness, and nature stewardship.”
At Nebraska Innovation Studio, the students designed fabric cutouts with a lens of cultural appreciation, which incorporated the use of the studio’s laser cutters. This activity was cited as a favorite for Jordayn Laplante, from Santee, Nebraska. He graduated from high school in May and also attended the academy in 2019.
“I’ve seen a lot of new things that I probably wouldn’t have ever seen if I didn’t come to this,” Laplante said. “But I really like the hands-on stuff.”
Laplante also said the visit to UNMC was especially meaningful. There, one of the activities was learning about Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American doctor and member of the Omaha tribe, who practiced medicine in Nebraska and was an advocate for Native Americans and public health.
“I didn’t really learn much about her in school, so hearing more of her story was good,” he said.
Decklin Cayou, a soon-to-be senior from Macy, Nebraska, enjoyed spending time at Campus Rec, and getting to know the other students. He said he’s planning to go to a junior college before transferring to Nebraska, and that the academy experience was very beneficial to picturing his future at the university.
“You learn a lot about college, and see how everything works and happens on campus,” Cayou said. “It really prepares you for when you do come to school.”
Visualizing all that is possible in future careers and opportunities is a large component of the academy, Bruguier said. With that in mind, a keynote presentation was given by Husker alumnus Alexander Mallory. Mallory, a member of the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska, was once a mentor for the center’s educational program when he was in college. He has since graduated from law school and is now a law clerk for the United States District Court, District of Arizona.
“We were both student mentors for the (Mid-America Transportation Center educational) program in 2014, and now all these years later, I’m leading it, and he’s a keynote,” Bruguier said. “It’s just really fulfilling to see these arcs, to see the people in one role grow into another role. We see these new students thinking about the possibilities that they will also keep growing into new roles. It’s very inspirational.”
Staff from the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Mid-America Transportation Center coordinating the program include Judi gaiashkibos, Scott Shafer, Janet Renoe, Larissa Sazama, Leah Urbank, and Madison Schmidt. The next academy will be offered in the summer of 2023.