When students arrive at a university to begin their studies, one indicator of their success is often how connected they feel to their campuses. Stanford graduate student and Knight-Hennessy scholar Jasmyn Burdsall said this is particularly true of underrepresented students, like those from Native and Indigenous communities.

“Research shows us that the more access to indigenized spaces that Native students have, the better their educational and mental health outcomes are,” Burdsall said, adding that they are more likely to finish their degrees and have lower incidences of anxiety and depression.

Last year, Burdsall and fellow Stanford graduate students and Knight-Hennessy scholars Carson Smith and Karli Moore formed the Native American Graduate Student Wellness Coalition, a KHeystone project at Knight-Hennessy Scholars that focuses on improving wellness for Native graduate students at Stanford. Its goal is to better understand that population and support their degree progress and overall well-being by connecting them to resources and an on-campus community.

Smith said that Stanford’s undergraduate Native community is relatively large and well supported, in part because the undergraduate experience is more centralized. But with graduate admissions and study taking place at the departmental level and some graduate students living off campus, it can be difficult to reach and convene them.

“Graduate students might not even know that there’s a Native graduate community that they can plug into,” Smith said. “This project is a way of getting everybody together.”

Project initiatives include developing a toolkit to help make admissions for prospective Native students more equitable, identifying the number of Native Stanford students, hosting events like presentations by wellness professionals, and organizing social opportunities like dinners, beading circles, and the first Native graduate student retreat this winter. The project is supported by close partnerships with other students, the Native American Cultural Center, and Knight-Hennessy Scholars.

“We are so inspired by the work that Carson, Jasmyn, and Karli are doing to support Indigenous communities,” said Tina Seelig, Knight-Hennessy Scholars executive director. “Their projects have a profound impact on the entire KHS community by exposing our scholars to issues faced by Indigenous groups that they might never have known about otherwise. This is true with so many members of our highly diverse community, who provide a wealth of perspectives on the world.”

With backgrounds in medicine, law, and environmental science, Burdsall, Smith, and Moore are uniquely qualified to improve the Native graduate student experience on campus. However, their efforts to support Native communities are not limited to Stanford.

Here’s a closer look at how their individual scholarship is helping provide solutions to challenges related to food security, safety, conflict resolution, and health in Indigenous communities.

(Image credit: Micaela Go)

Jasmyn Burdsall is from Missoula, Montana, and a member of the Blackfeet Nation. She holds a master’s degree in community health and prevention research at Stanford School of Medicine, where she is now pursuing a PhD in epidemiology and clinical research. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in public health from Santa Clara University (SCU).

Much of her doctoral research investigates the relationship between mental health and disease prevention in Indigenous communities. This includes understanding how food security impacts mental health and how traditional food practices can reduce illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Burdsall aspires to apply community-engaged research and culture as medicine to create health care and policy interventions in collaboration with Indigenous populations.

She said there’s a misconception in Western medicine that physical and mental well-being are separate.

“I hope that my research can clarify how they are uniquely intertwined and the importance of treating the whole person, not just a disease,” she said.

Burdsall has led research examining the cultural disparities within mental health diagnostics, with a focus on PTSD, in the Culture Impacts Emotion Lab at SCU. And, as a Global Social Benefit Fellow, she created an innovative mental health management curriculum for schoolgirls and refugees in Uganda.

She said conventional medical research practices are not always best suited to support Native people, and advocates for a more community-oriented and culturally based approach.

“It’s important to work with community stakeholders to see what resources are present in a community – like traditional food practices and cultural traditions – that we know improve people’s health long term, and then think about ways to apply those community and cultural resources to prevent disease,” she said.

(Image credit: Micaela Go)

Karli Moore is from Prospect, North Carolina, and a member of the Lumbee Tribe. She is a third-year PhD student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at the Doerr School of Sustainability where she researches the impacts of climate change on Tribal food systems.

“As Native people, we are connected to our land and food sources, so climate change impacts our livelihoods and cultural traditions,” Moore said.

Climate-related threats to Native communities include wildfires, warming waters that decimate fish species, and coastal erosion forcing some Native communities to relocate.

“A huge challenge, especially here in the West, is access to water,” Moore said. “As the climate becomes drier and hotter, folks need more water to continue to produce food and I’m interested in how we use that limited resource.”

She was a biodiversity coordinator at BASF, an economic fellow at the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, and a program officer at the Native American Agriculture Fund. Her work has helped guide the investment of more than $40 million for Native food systems. She also serves as the chair of the board of the nonprofit Tribal Agriculture Fellowship.

At Stanford, her dissertation will investigate how tribal lands are affected by climate-related agricultural policies, such as those related to solar energy production or soil carbon sequestration. Moore aspires to advance food sovereignty and economic development for Indigenous communities.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and agricultural business management from North Carolina State University, a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Arkansas, and rural development from Ghent University.

(Image credit: Micaela Go)

Carson Smith is from the Chicagoland area of Illinois and is a member of the Choctaw Nation. She is pursuing a JD at Stanford Law School. She graduated with honors from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in Native American studies. She is interested in improving peacemaking processes in tribal communities.

Smith said that Western court systems aren’t always effective in small tribal communities, many of which have had their own conflict resolution systems for centuries. Much of her work and research aims to support and develop alternative dispute resolution systems and tribal courts that are community-based and cognizant of cultural matters.

“When you have a tribe that is small, community connections are so important,” Smith said. “So having a system that will maintain familial and community relationships is extremely important, because if you don’t have those you can’t govern.”

Today, peacemaking is mostly used to navigate issues involving tribal community members, such as family disputes, probate, criminal offenses, or child welfare concerns. But Smith sees the potential for such Indigenous conflict resolution processes to be used to mediate conflicts between tribes and other groups, like governments or corporations.

Smith has worked as a Conflict Resolution Fellow at Stanford University, where she has guided the mapping and redesign of multiple university conflict resolution processes, taught several courses, and acted as a peacemaker. She is also an advisory board member for the Native American Rights Fund’s Indigenous Peacemaking Initiative. She hopes to apply her scholarship to help tribal communities better understand the policies and federal laws that may impact the development of peacemaking processes.