Grant Program Funds Native Students

Ovide Mercredi stood on stage in front of a standing-room-only plenary session audience at The Wildlife Society’s Annual Conference in Winnipeg last October. Several hundred people listened as he spoke about the Cree approach to wildlife conservation.

“What you call wildlife and what we call our relatives,” he said.

His speech really resonated with Laura Lagunez, a senior undergraduate at Cornell University who identifies as Diné and Nahua and attended the conference as a result of a student travel grant provided through the TWS Native Student Professional Development Program.

This year, eight students received grants which were funded by the U.S. Forest Service, the USDA APHIS National Wildlife Research Center, TWS’ The 1,000, and the Western and Canadian Sections of TWS.

Amid growing concerns about ethnic and cultural diversity within the wildlife profession, TWS and its Native People’s Wildlife Management Working Group created this program to help indigenous wildlife students attend the Annual Conference. This year, the program funded seven native students from all over the United States. In addition to attending the conference, the students also received a one-year membership in TWS and the Working Group.

“There is a dire need of building this acceptance and confidence between what you would call western science and bridging the gap from there to traditional ecological knowledge,” Lagunez said. “As native students, we’re the emerging generation to bridge that gap.”

University of Arizona master’s student Chase Voirin, also of Navajo descent, shared Lagunez’ sentiments, and was encouraged by TWS’ efforts to increase diversity.

“I actually think this Native [Student] Professional Development program is probably doing the right thing in trying to advertise this through universities,” Voirin said. “I think trying to expand on the native professional development program is key.”

This responsibility to represent their culture also comes with many benefits to those students who are selected to participate in the program, Lagunez pointed out. She experienced networking opportunities, expanded her knowledge of career options in wildlife, and even got advice on graduate school. “I just want to thank the Native People’s [Wildlife Management] Working Group again and The Wildlife Society for allowing me to come to the conference. I was able to directly engage with all these different professionals and get a better idea of what I want to do.”

The students who attended the conference through the program had the opportunity to introduce themselves at the Council Meeting and say a few words. All were grateful for the opportunity and there was a sense of encouragement and optimism among the group. After the conference, Voirin was excited to get more involved with TWS and the Native Peoples’ Wildlife Management Working Group.

“There are big shoes to fill,” he said. “I hope it motivates me to become a leader. Overall, The Wildlife Society encourages me to bridge that gap between tribes and non-native wildlife profession.”

Candidates for the program must self-identify as Native American, First Nations or Indigenous Tribe, or as Native Alaskan or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Applicants must also be enrolled in a relevant graduate or undergraduate program, display a record of academic excellence, and have a strong interest in pursuing a career in wildlife management or conservation. Contact Serra Hoagland at for more information, or visit the Native People’s Wildlife Management Working Group web page.

2015 Native Student Professional Development Program participants:

  • Valentine Vaeoso (Pacific Islander), Undergraduate at University of Hawaii at Hilo
  • Laura Lagunez (Navajo), Undergraduate at Cornell University
  • Victoria Atencio (Santa Domingo Pueblo), Undergraduate at New Mexico State University
  • La’akea Low (Native Hawaiian), Undergraduate at University of Hawaii Maui College and Oregon State University Ecampus
  • Chase Voirin (Navajo), Masters student at University of Arizona
  • Bronson Palupe (Native Hawaiian), Undergraduate at University of Hawaii at Hilo
  • Megan Judkins, PhD student at Oklahoma State University


  • Vernon Nieto (Santa Domingo Pueblo), Undergraduate at New Mexico State University

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