In September of 2015, the USD Center for Disabilities was one of 14 centers across the country to receive a National Training Initiative (NTI) grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Community Living. This grant gives the Center an opportunity to partner with Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation to design a Diversity Fellowship opportunity. The Center's project focused on supporting a collaborative, immersion, experimental learning approach for two Sinte Gleska University students. The selected fellows are Whitney Jones and Vanessa Sully, both Human Services majors from Mission, SD. They were selected, and receive support and guidance from tribal elder Burdette Clifford, M.S., Human Services Department Chair at Sinte Gleska University. Principal Investigator and Project Director for the NTI program, Eric Kurtz, Ph.D., states that while many current efforts are being pursued to promote the values of diversity and inclusion, there is still much work to be done and much to learn from the perspectives of those residing in reservation communities.
"It is critical that we bring people together and establish relationships so that we can learn from one another, and truly integrate our shared vision for working together to improve access to services and supports," says Kurtz.
For one fellow, this experience was another way for him to give back to his community. Whitney Jones was born and raised in Sioux Falls, S.D. and then moved to Mission, S.D. as an adult. He then had to adjust to the very different environment and the unique needs present on the Rosebud Reservation.
"When I heard about the challenges faced on the reservation, I knew I had to step up and show them that there are opportunities out there that can make a difference in our lives," says Jones.
Once he heard about the NTI program through Clifford, he jumped at the opportunity. As a fellow, his experiences ranged from learning about policy and advocating for disability issues in Washington D.C. and South Dakota state capitol, Pierre, S.D. to attending conferences, clinics, and community events that
the USD Center for Disabilities holds. He has even made new friends with the SD LEND trainees and has started a Facebook page to keep in touch.
"This experience has opened my eyes to the world of disability, the struggles, and the laws and regulations that affect people with disabilities on an everyday basis," says Jones.
His advice on prospective students wanting to participate in the NTI program in the future, is to go into it with an open mind.
"It is a great opportunity for students to see the world differently than back home and it is a great stepping stone for students, like myself that want to go into counseling or who want to work with people with disabilities as a career," says Jones.
When he finishes the fellowship in September, he will also be graduating from Sinte Gleska University with a bachelor's degree in counseling with an emphasis in chemical dependency. His career goal is to stay in Mission, SD and work at an agency in which helping people is their top priority. He will still continue to have ties to Sinte Gleska as he will develop a video promoting the NTI program and collaborate with Clifford on starting up a transition clinic on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
"There is a greater need for this type of clinic on the reservation because some of our youth don't realize that there are people out there that want to help you succeed beyond high school," says Jones.
Throughout the internship, Clifford also points out that not only do students gain knowledge and experience in the disability field but also develop their own ideas to bring back to their communities and their future careers. "It gives students the hands-on experience and a broader knowledge of what an institution (i.e. USD Center for Disabilities) would offer such as services and programs that they otherwise may not be aware of," says Clifford.
Equally as important as the fellows learning from experiences that were provided to them through the Center for Disabilities, the trainees, faculty, and staff of the Center have learned critical information and have been able to see important issues through perspectives and viewpoints not otherwise provided in their training.
Both Clifford and Kurtz agree that former students will serve as role models and mentors for new students going into the program which will enhance the motivation and interest between current and future leaders.
Pictured are the students Vanessa Sully and Whitney Jones