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Program creates education solution to substance abuse in Native American communities

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – Maria Vormestrand wasn't sure how she would pay for college when she re-enrolled last year to pursue the education she had set aside years ago to raise her family. However, she was sure she wanted to help her Native American community as a social worker, and to do that, she needed a college degree.

Thanks to the American Indian College Fund and the United Health Foundation, Vormestrand and 10 other Native North Dakota college students are getting help as the first recipients of scholarships offered through the foundation's Tribal Wellness Scholarship Program.

The program is designed to create a pipeline of Native American mental health and substance abuse professionals to help those suffering from the effects of substance abuse to rebuild their lives while ensuring that their tribal heritage and traditions continue for the next generation. The pilot program was funded through a $360,000 grant from the United Health Foundation to American Indian College Fund in May. It includes scholarships, mentoring, academic support, job training and research opportunities.

"I am blessed by receiving the scholarship," Vormestrand said. "The UHC scholarship is just a confirmation to me that it's never too late to follow your dreams."

In addition to Vormestrand, other recipients chosen from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians for the 2018-19 scholarships are:

  • Danelle Belgrade and Raeanne Henry, seeking associate degrees in nursing from Turtle Mountain Community College.
  • Latoya Delorme and Desarae Martin, seeking bachelor's degrees in nursing from the University of North Dakota.
  • Briana Delorme-Jeanotte, seeking a bachelor's degree in nursing at the University of Mary.
  • Trista Jetty, seeking a bachelor's degree in nursing from North Dakota State University.
  • Alisha Parisien, seeking a bachelor's degree in social work from UND.
  • Pelchee Slater, seeking an associate degree in pre-nursing from Turtle Mountain Community College.

Recipients also include Christine LaRock, Spirit Lake Dakota Tribe, seeking an associate degree in applied science pre-nursing from Cankdeska Cikana Community College, and Krista Miller, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, seeking a bachelor's degree in nursing from UND.

Vormestrand expects to earn her associate degree in social work from Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Fort Totten, in December and will continue her work toward a bachelor's degree at the University of North Dakota. She is on an accelerated track that she hopes will lead to a bachelor's degree in December 2019. She intends to seek her master's in social work and wants to eventually obtain a doctorate in Native American studies.

Vormestrand had started college in the 1980s, but family commitments caused her life to go in a different direction. Another turning point came in 2017, when she lost her job with the closure of the store she managed. Her regret in life was never completing her education, so she decided to return to school, even while continuing to work full-time.

"I was making money and doing what I needed to do to have a good home environment to raise my family, but because of this, I didn't qualify for financial aid," said Vormestrand, who remained undaunted. "I just put faith in my ambition and I said I am going for it."

While in school, she discovered she was eligible for the Tribal Wellness Scholarship Program. Her application and subsequent award eases the financial burden as she works toward a future career as a social worker assisting families affected by substance abuse.

Vormestrand has lived with an addict and knows the struggles faced by addicts and their families. Her own experiences taught her self discipline and the importance of setting clear goals and pressing on despite setbacks, she said.

"I know that a hard life can make you stronger, and we need to learn to be grateful and to turn those challenges into opportunities," Vormestrand said.

UnitedHealth Group established the United Health Foundation in 1999. The Tribal Wellness Scholarship Program is a subset of the foundation's Diverse Scholars Initiative, which provides grants to minority scholarship organizations. Since 2007, the initiative has provided more than $18 million to support nearly 2,400 scholarships.