Education cohort program connects UMD with Indigenous cultures
“I hope me going through this program will inspire other Ojibwe people to do the same thing. It can be done, but it does take a lot of work,” said Thelma Nayquonabe, 74.
DULUTH — When Priscilla Belisle started her doctoral program, her children were 3, 1½ and 6 weeks. After 11 years, a pandemic and many life changes, Belisle graduated with an Educational Doctorate (Ed.D.) degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Belisle is among the four Indigenous program cohorts who crossed the threshold Saturday at Amsoil Arena. More than sharing culture in common — the four are already accomplished in their communities and fields — they have been working toward Saturday’s commencement together for more than a decade.
For Belisle, the structure of UMD’s cohort-led program, the professors who created it, and the once-a-month weekend classes that made it possible for her to continue to work full-time, support her family and her community while furthering her education.
It’s an accomplishment she worked hard for, with ongoing support from her family, her mom traveling with her to Duluth to help watch her children and her husband taking the lead managing the home while she wrote.
The Oneida Nation woman said her dissertation wouldn’t be as impactful for her community as it is now, with her experience in life and from working in the Indigenous cohort.
“The four of us who are finishing it up right now are a testament to that desire to help our communities and that reciprocity we feel with our communities supporting us on this journey and wanting to reciprocate that,” said Belisle.
Belisle is thrilled and proud to be an example to her community that earning a doctorate is possible, and “It’s really about the journey, not necessarily about the destination.”
Thelma Nayquonabe mirrored that sentiment.
“I hope me going through this program will inspire other Ojibwe people to do the same thing. It can be done, but it does take a lot of work,” said the 74-year-old.
The last couple of years, Nayquonabe relied heavily on technology to connect with her cohort and complete her dissertation from her home on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation near Hayward.
“Education is really important to Indian people. Not any more so than their culture. … an Ojibwe person, the culture and the language grounds you,” she added.
Marti Ford hasn’t seen her advisor or cohorts for years. At least, not in person.
She lives outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and was looking forward to seeing them this weekend.
Since the cohort started in UMD’s doctoral program together in 2011, Ford’s brother, sister and father have died. As much as Ford knew her limits, she knew she’d return to complete her degree after taking a break to care for herself and her family.
Bonding with her cohorts and professors, Native and non-Native, has been a highlight for her. Ford recalled turning to Belisle and Nayquonabe during a rough spot. “At the end, you think, ‘I can’t do this, I’m not smart enough to do this. And, both Pri and Thelma, we talk, ‘I’ve felt like that, too. Just hang in there.’”
It’s important to have this type of support navigating “that white, colonized, westernized system,” she said.
While working in higher education, Ford described experiencing tokenism (hiring a person from a minority group to give the appearance of fair treatment). She also described receiving disparaging comments after achieving a high ranking role.
Often in Indigenous methodology, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual bodies are balanced. Education isn’t that way, but it can be. The more Indigenous people move through the system, the more voices there are to make changes for the better, for everybody, she said.
“For kids coming in as new immigrants, for people who come in that are nonbinary. … The more people that are educated in an Indigenous way, we’re going to be able to all work together as partners to be able to make that happen,” Ford continued.
Brian Jackson also graduated Saturday from UMD’s cohort program. He said the program’s approach matched “our ways and our beliefs and our teachings.”
Working and studying in higher education, Jackson said it’s critical to have representation at the table.
“You don’t want white people deciding what’s right for tribal communities.
“Oftentimes, Indian people don’t get those opportunities. … Students need to see who they are and that they can be in these positions.”
Jackson also graduated Saturday from UMD’s cohort program, whose approach matched “our ways and our beliefs and our teachings,” he said.