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Educator Spotlight: Prof. Maxine Janis

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The need for more Native American health professionals who, in her words, could "reach to the depth of healing for our people" has kept Maxine Janis focused on recruiting Native American students into higher education since she herself entered the academic arena. More than 20 years of working as a dental assistant with the Indian Health Service (IHS) brought this reality home for her and kept alive her dream of becoming a health professional.

As a young Lakota woman, Prof. Janis was first admitted to a dental hygiene program in the 1970s, but she lacked the financial resources to seize the opportunity at that time. Today she holds a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, a master's degree in public health, and the position of Assistant Professor at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff.

Prof. Janis was drawn to NAU because of the university's commitment to increasing Native American enrollment and leveling the playing field for students who may not have had the opportunity to study higher-level math and science in high school. "As one of the few Native American faculty members in the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) at NAU," she says, "my gift back to the community is opening doors of opportunity. For our students, I'm bringing my journey full circle."

Her first position within CHHS was as Director of the Hopi Project, which places dental hygiene students in clinical rotations and enrichment opportunities on the nearby Hopi tribal reservation, exposing them to both the oral health needs and the culture of the Hopi people. Prof. Janis's familiarity with Indian Health Service facilities and protocols prepared her well for the position and allows her to provide a seamless transition to community practice for NAU's students. Many find their time on the reservation eye-opening and leave with a strong desire to work in a public health setting.

Prof. Janis also helps further the university's commitment to multicultural understanding by serving on its Commission for Native Americans, which advises the university President on issues of concern to Native American students and faculty. In addition, she is a member of the Faculty Academy, a group established to mentor Native American students as part of the college's Native Journey to Academic Success (NJACS) project. Once Native American students are admitted to the college, the project provides support in the form of tutoring, mentoring, cultural connections with elders, traditional ceremonies to mark important events, and financial assistance that might take the form of gas money or a child care voucher when unexpected needs arise.

Since Prof. Janis's days with the Hopi Project, which like NJACS is funded by the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation, her responsibilities have also included recruiting Native students into the health professions. She frequently visits tribal colleges to talk with students about health careers and guide their educational preparation. "I tell students, this is just a stepping stone. You continue on. I am always pushing Native students to reach higher."

She herself provides a strong role model in this regard. Three years ago, NAU applied for a Minority Faculty Fellowship from the federal government's Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to support Prof. Janis in her pursuit of a doctoral degree in higher education. She plans to focus her research on the recruitment and retention of Native American students into dental hygiene and to look at their career choices post-graduation.

So what impact do NAU's programs have in this regard? In 2010, NAU's dental hygiene program saw four Native students graduate in a class of 25, and this past spring two more graduated. That variation is typical of the ebb and flow of enrollment, as clusters of students enter and graduate from CHHS. Janis' impact in this area is even harder to quantify since her goal is to recruit students into higher education, not just dental hygiene. Nevertheless, her colleagues say she is making a palpable difference in the lives of NAU's students.

"Maxine is a remarkable woman," says Dr. Denise M. Helm, Associate Dean of CHHS. "She's very focused on supporting and recruiting Native American students. They know that. They feel that. They see her passion. She goes the extra mile with them."

This appraisal dovetails nicely with Prof. Janis's aspirations for her students of all backgrounds. "What resonates for me," she says, "is the need to teach young people what it means to be socially responsible as a health care provider." She sees a burgeoning awareness of this in her students and wants to help them focus on the legacy they hope to leave behind.

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