In Browning, Blackfeet Community College held a ceremony this week to name a newly-built $7.5 million Health Science and Education Building in honor of the late Blackfeet tribal elder, Elouise Cobell.
On Monday, nearly two dozen nursing students wearing brand-new navy blue scrub tops stood in front of a crowd outside the east entrance of the newest building at the college. They linked arms as one student used scissors to cut through red ribbon.
More than a hundred people gathered to celebrate the naming and dedication of the 9,000-square foot building, which was completed this fall and now houses the community college’s education and health science programs.
“We have our new lab and it's with the mannequins that are hooked up to a laptop and they can make noise and breathe and have different heart rates and respiration and everything," says Brittney Racine, who's planning to graduate from BCC this spring with an associate’s degree in nursing. "That's something new we didn't get to use in our old lab, so that's pretty cool.”
The college’s two-year nursing program started only five years ago. For many residents in and around Browning, the program and new building represent a movement to train and keep more Native healthcare professionals in the community.
Montana is expected to need 7,000 more healthcare workers in the next decade. And nursing is the most in-demand high-paying job in the state with an average salary of over $64,000. That’s more than double the average household income in Browning.
Carol Murray, the interim president of the college, says having a nursing program in Browning makes the profession more accessible to residents.
“Now people can say, ‘I can be a nurse,’ because they're seeing the classrooms here. They're seeing the students who are graduating with their ASN-RN degrees. And I think they're going to see the nurses employed throughout the state of Montana. To me, that’s pretty significant for opportunities that people would never have had before.”
While the Native American population in Montana is nearly 7 percent and growing, Native Americans make up less than 3 percent of the nurses in the state.
Ashly HeavyRunner has worked as a certified nursing assistant for 10 years in the ER at the Indian Health Service hospital in Browning. She says having Native American healthcare professionals can make a big difference in how comfortable Native patients are in seeking treatment.
“Just because you can relate to your patients and understand the culture. Whereas coming in as an outsider, they don't understand some of the culture and it's just harder for them to care for them.”
HeavyRunner says she’s experienced this firsthand both as a Native healthcare worker and as the mother of a disabled child.
“When he goes to the hospital here and they're Native, he's more comfortable with them. Then when we go away to doctors appointments, he's very scared and he doesn't want nothing to do with them.”
A 2016 report from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry noted that the low number of American Indian nurses in Montana could be affecting patient outcomes. The report said having American Indian nurses provide services in tribal communities helps build trust with patients and leads to better care and recommended schools try to recruit more American Indians into nursing professions.
Two years ago, Montana State University received a grant worth nearly $1 million to increase enrollment of American Indian and Alaska Native nursing students at its College of Nursing. American Indians now make up more than 6 percent of that nursing school’s student body – a higher percent than at any other college at the university.
HeavyRunner wants to continue her education and become a registered nurse. But between caring for her son and her job in Browning, relocating for school is out of the question. She enrolled this fall in BCC’s two-year nursing program and started classes in the new building.
“It’s hard, it’s demanding, but it’s worth it,” HeavyRunner says.
BCC’s administration says they want to someday be able to offer a four-year nursing degree like MSU’s so students like HeavyRunner can get a bachelor’s degree in nursing. But planning and securing funding for that program remains uncertain.
“It's not just going from two years to four years, there's an awful lot of challenges and hoops to go through, one of which is financial,” says Keith McDivitt, BCC’s Nursing Program Director.
McDivitt says the challenges include finding a way to offer a competitive salary that would attract qualified nursing instructors to Browning. Currently, only one of BCC’s four nursing faculty has a master’s degree in nursing. McDivitt says that could be a problem since state boards of nursing are increasingly moving towards requiring nursing faculty to have master's degrees.
But both McDivitt and Interim College President Carol Murray say the new facilities are a start.
“Just by having these beautiful places to come to and be a part of, we think it'll cause dreams that may have never came about prior to being around the campus,” Murray says.
To her, and to many Browning residents who attended, Monday’s ceremony served not only as a celebration of the new building, but also of the future the college hopes to bring to the reservation.