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Nursing Students Immerse in Lakota Culture

Kent State University at Salem nursing students visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota each year as part of a study away experience. As they immerse themselves in the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, they embark on a journey of cultural understanding.

“Nurses must be sensitive to the cultural diversity of the patients for whom they provide care. This experience immerses students into the Lakota culture where they explore and discover potential biases, as well as engage in conversations around the experience,” said Lorene Martin, senior lecturer and coordinator for the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Kent State Salem.

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Pine Ridge is the eighth largest but the poorest reservation in the U.S., covering two million square acres with a population of 20,000. Most families live in small homes without electricity, telephones, running water or sewage systems. The annual median household income is about $26,000.

Martin has traveled with nursing students to the reservation 12 times and has developed a great respect, deep appreciation and sincere love for tribe members. She will lead a group of nursing students to the reservation this fall.

Students learn about the struggles faced by these families and describe the trip as life-changing, noting their personal growth and self-reflection opportunities. They impact the tribe members by working in the Pine Ridge Hospital and Kyle Health Center to provide important healthcare services that are not readily available on the reservation.

“This trip exposed me to so many things I had never seen before,” said Clayton Poteet, ’18, who was a junior nursing student when he made the trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “This trip changed my life.”

Now working as a nurse in California, Poteet recalls being deeply impacted by this experience. “I learned so much, and meeting these people changed me,” he said. “When I see that so many people in our own country are living without many of the things we take for granted – fresh fruits and vegetables, safe roads, technology, medicine – it makes me feel lucky. Yet, I feel confused about how we can allow this to happen in the United States.”

Because of poverty and lack of transportation, residents on the reservation often seek medical attention only in dire situations or much too late. “There is little to no preventative care,” said Poteet. “We saw many people with conditions that started as something minor but turned into serious situations simply because they couldn’t get care early on.”

Poteet has encouraged nursing students to take advantage of opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. “I was able to go outside of my comfort zone and learn about a population that I knew nothing about,” he said of his Pine Ridge experience. “Many professional nursing associations stress the importance of cultural competence in nursing practice, and this trip helped us begin our journey. It changed me and my approach to caring for my patients, and I know it changed the others who were with me. We will be better nurses because of this experience.” Learn more about this program.