UNR’s Saundra Mitrovich (Tyme Maidu Tribe) creates indigenous student empowerment program
Special to First Nation’s Focus
RENO, Nev. — For University of Nevada, Reno international affairs student Joshua Easlick, finding a place to explore his research interests was not the most straightforward task.
“No one knew what to do,” Easlick said. “This is the third institution I’ve attended and, thankfully, through The Center: Every Student. Every Story; and through IRISE, it finally clicked.”
IRISE stands for “Indigenous Research Institute for Student Empowerment” and is a University program founded by Saundra Mitrovich, outreach and retention coordinator and indigenous student services program coordinator for the University.
Mitrovich, who is an enrolled member of the Tyme Maidu Tribe of the Berry Creek, Rancheria and also a descendant of the Yahmonee Maidu Tribe in Quincy, California, designed the program to help any student who identifies as indigenous get access to writing and research early on in their academic journey.
The impetus for the IRISE program came two years ago after a conversation Mitrovich had with one of her then graduate-student workers, Loni Romo.
Romo stated that she wished she would have had more research experience as an undergraduate student. Mitrovich, who was a McNair Scholar, understood the importance of having support services who could offer those experiences early on.
In her role at the University, Mitrovich knew how difficult it can be for Indigenous students to see Indigenous work related to their studies.
Mitrovich also knew that professional conferences and programs, where students could see and talk to others with similar backgrounds applying academic skills and knowledge to their culture, can fill the void.
So she set out to give students access by identifying a national conference she and a group of students could attend. It was then that IRISE was born.
“We wanted to create a program that encourages students to engage in research projects throughout the year in their respective disciplines leading to a presentation at local, regional, and/or national conferences,” Mitrovich said. “Specifically, these conferences can offer our University students the opportunity to learn from and engage with some of the Native American thought leaders as well as other Indigenous college students from around the country.”
To accomplish this, students are paired with graduate and faculty mentors to engage in research throughout the year. Additionally, workshops are provided monthly to continue dialogue about special topics in research.
For the workshops, IRISE provides a teleconference opportunity for Native students from across Nevada attending institutions in and outside the state.
Through working with the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, a research hub was also created on the University Libraries’ site, guides.library.unr.edu/IRISE, designed for IRISE student use.
For Easlick, a member of the Oneida Nation, the IRISE program was a game changer.
“It helped me connect my academic area of interest to that of my people,” Easlick said. “Before, I would have questions about how current economic policies could be applied to my nation, a part of the Iroquis Confederacy, and none of my professors could help. I now have the resources to find these answers.”
The challenges Easlick faced as part of his education, are not unique to him. According to Mitrovich, Native American students are consistently confronted with the rigorous task of navigating institutions constructed to serve western educational goals.
“Higher education is designed to serve the needs and goals of western society,” Mitrovich said. “As a result, Native American students have often been neglected in higher education and have historically had to experience the hardships of navigating educational systems which are systematically designed to exclude them.”
One of the topics IRISE students presented on at the American Indian Studies Association 20th Annual Conference this past February, were the strategies of Native American students in adapting to institutions of higher education and maneuvering through colonial spaces in order to produce research that affirms tribal sovereignty and nationhood.
“Importantly, increasing research that is both consistent and aligned with tribal goals is a crucial step towards strengthening our communities and asserting sovereignty in research practices,” Mitrovich said. “Institutional mentorship programs, like IRISE, focus on retaining Indigenous students in higher education through valuable community-based research projects and are designed to increase tribal self-determination and dedication to higher education.”
To date, 16 University students have had, or will have, the opportunity to present at or attend a national conference.
This summer, as part of IRISE, the University will send eight representatives — two doctoral students, two master’s students, two undergraduate students and two University faculty — to Hamilton, New Zealand for the American Indigenous Studies Association conference.
Easlick is among the students attending and he will be presenting on the topic of “Nation Building through Inter-tribal trading.”
“I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished so far,” Mitrovich said. “We had five submissions for the conference in New Zealand and three were accepted, showcasing the quality and depth of the work our University students are doing through this program. We still have a lot more work to do but this is an incredible start.”
“Saundra is a passionate advocate for redesigning educational curriculum and programs to support and encourage stronger outreach, retention, and graduate programs for Indigenous students and families,” Shannon Ellis, vice president of student services, said. “She strongly believes in the involvement of community voice in the development of educational programs.
“Through the development of the IRISE program, she is offering students an opportunity to not only find meaning in their education, but also the ability to take what they learn and help their communities in new and meaningful ways.”
Currently, 15 students receive mentorship from four dedicated faculty through the IRISE program.
Students interested in learning more about IRISE can contact Mitrovich, firstname.lastname@example.org. As part of University Student Services, the program is open to any student who identifies as Indigenous and is interested in undergraduate research. O
Stacey Montooth, a member of the Walker River Paiute Nation who works currently as Public Relations and Community Information Officer for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, will start her new role Sept. 1.