History of impact

UND student organization, AISES, making waves on national level when it comes to putting American Indians into STEM fields

Hannah Balderas

Hannah Balderas, a psychology and pre-med student and UND American Indian Science and Engineering Society chapter secretary, had an eventful time at the AISES national conference recently, as she was elected to serve as a junior member of the National AISES Board of Directors. Photo by Shawna Schill.

The University of North Dakota American Indian Science and Engineering Society chapter is used to doing things big.

And this year was no exception for the local chapter at the most recent AISES National Conference in Minneapolis.

There, the UND AISES team of students took home honors for national Distinguished Chapter of the Year and the national Professional Chapter Development Award. The stellar showing comes on the heels of last year’s national conference in Phoenix, where UND AISES members were recognized with the national Recruitment & Retention Chapter Award.

A celebration was held Thursday, Dec. 8, at the UND American Indian Center to honor local AISES members for their achievements.

A few of the group’s student members sat down with UND Today to talk about their organization, its history on campus and their latest achievements. They were UND AISES vice president Emily Falcon, a UND biology and pre-med student from Belcourt, N.D.; chapter secretary Hannah Balderas, a psychology and pre-med student from New Town, N.D.; and Cheyenne Defender, Dunseith, N.D.; and Makayla Platt, Tacoma, Wash.

Cheyenne Defender, Hannah Balderas, Emily Falcon and Makayla Platt

Members of UND’s American Indian Science and Engineering Society chapter earned several honors at the Society’s most recent conference in Minneapolis. A few of the members pose for a group picture as they hold the chapter’s national awards from 2015 and 2016. (left to right) Cheyenne Defender, Dunseith, N.D.; Hannah Balderas, New Town, N.D.; Emily Falcon, Belcourt, N.D.; and Makayla Platt, Tacoma, Wash. Photo by Shawna Schill.

More than members

Upon introductions, Defender, a nursing student in the UND College of Nursing and Professional Disciplines; and Platt, a fisheries and wildlife studies major, identified themselves as “just members” of the organization, to which Sandra Mitchell, UND associate vice president of diversity and inclusion, gently corrected them.

“There is no such thing as ‘just a member,’” Mitchell told the women. “When you have this kind of stuff going on, you are more than ‘just members’ — you are part of something great.”

Mitchell made her remarks while attending the AISES celebration at the American Indian Center.

Falcon said AISES is a student organization on campus that has a mission to increase the representation of American Indians, Alaska and Hawaiian Natives and other First Nation People into STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  She said that anyone can join the group.

“Even if you are not native and you want to help increase native representation into STEM, you can join,” said Falcon, who also serves as the AISES representative for Region 5 (Northern Plains region) this year.

Legacy of leadership

Balderas said there are about 20 active members comprising UND’s AISES chapter. Many UND students made the trip to Minneapolis for the national conference, which drew other AISES members from more than 200 college and university chapters around the nation. The conference also typically attracts recruiters from national government and private-sector employers, such as NASA, the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and IBM.

AISES students from UND, including chapter president Brooke Fettig, a biology major from New Town, spent much of their time at the conference networking, and many showed off research presentations. There also were celebrity sightings, including an appearance by Dr. Evan Adams, the actor-turned-physician and outspoken gay activist, who brought positive attention to American Indians in Hollywood after the release of the 1998 film, “Smoke Signals.” The critically acclaimed film is said to have offered one of the “first modern glimpses at American Indian reservation life,” according to The Advocate, a nationally respected gay and alternative lifestyles publication.

Balderas, UND AISES chapter secretary, had an eventful time at the national conference, as she was elected to serve as a junior member of the National AISES Board of Directors.

Falcon, too, made an impact.  As Region 5 rep, Falcon had the honor of standing up in front of the conference’s huge audience to introduce her group in the “Regions Call.” Each year, the loudest region gets the right to possess the AISES “Spirit Stick,” a colorful and ornate staff that serves as a sort of traveling trophy. Falcon’s efforts in leading her region were deemed worthy enough to win the Spirit Stick, which she proudly showed off at UND’s AISES celebration.

Kathy Sukalski, associate professor of biomedical sciences at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, has been UND’s AISES chapter advisor for 15 years. She says UND’s most recent showing at the national level is nothing new.

“This chapter has a history of having a very strong national presence,” Sukalski said. “We’ve had a steady history of UND students serving as regional or national representatives over the past 15 years.”

 North Dakota roots

Sukalski said the chapter’s relatively recent success started in the early 2000s, and could be attributed to two past members in particular: Twyla Baker-Demeray and Amber Finley. Baker Demeray currently is president of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, where Finley also serves as a faculty member. Both Demeray and Finley serve on the AISES national board of directors.

Leigh Jeanotte, director of American Indian Student Services at UND, said that AISES, as a national organization, actually has early roots in North Dakota. The organization was started, in part, by Dwight Gourneau, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. Gourneau retired from IMB Corp., and has more than 20 years of experience creating and directing STEM education projects that serve American Indian students and teachers.

Jeanotte also pointed to the work of people like Sukalski, who create the environment through their mentorship and counseling that allows UND AISES members to succeed. One need only look at the chapter’s past achievements and its most recent recognitions in Minnesota for proof of that, he said.

“These achievements are really quite an honor for our institution,” Jeanotte said, “ but it’s really the students that make this organization so strong every year.”