March 11, 2024

NDSU alumna selected for prestigious award


NDSU alumna Caitlin Johnson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Minnesota State University Moorhead, has been selected for the “2024 Native American 40 Under 40” award presented by The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.  

Nominated by members of their communities, this prestigious award is given to American Indians (including Canadian First Nations), Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians under the age of 40 who have demonstrated leadership, initiative and dedication while making significant contributions in their professions and communities. This year’s class includes an Oscar nominee, a White House advisor, tribal government and business leaders, attorneys, a journalist, several working in Native American food and agriculture and a Minnesota educator.   

Johnson said she was initially surprised when she learned she was selected for the award and that she is the lone educator on the list. 

“I like to humble myself, so it was really just kind of a shock in general. Not only is my work being recognized, but I’m being recognized with other amazing people in Indian country, and I think that alone kind of made the award that much more memorable for me,” Johnson said. 

Johnson is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and grew up on her home reservation. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from NDSU in 2012. While Johnson said she initially didn’t plan to pursue a career in education, through watching her mom teach elementary school students, and from teaching English Language Arts on her home reservation after graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Johnson fell in love with the profession. 

“I think that’s when my outlook on myself changed where I didn’t give myself enough credit as to my patience and the impact that I could have on students,” she said. “I don’t think without that opportunity to get into the classroom with that unconventional type of degree, I would have never figured that out about myself.” 

Johnson went on to earn master’s degrees in curriculum, instruction and assessment and in project management and business administration management from the University of Mary, as well as a Ph.D. in adult and community education from NDSU. 

Several factors led Johnson to pursue a career in higher education. One was NDSU’s Multicultural Programs Office. 

“They’re a huge factor in who I am now,” she said. “NDSU provided me with a graduate assistantship when I was there, and my assistantship actually started in the Multicultural Programs Office. I think that was when I was like ‘you know what, I want to make the shift to higher ed eventually.’ I was still working with high school students at that point.”

Another factor that led Johnson to work toward a Ph.D. was to become a voice and support system for other indigenous students.  

“I think the further along in my studies, the more I realized that I wanted to be that 1%, because less than 1% of all people with PhD’s, less than 1% of faculty are indigenous. I wanted to be that voice in higher ed,” she said. “The widest equity gap we have in higher education is with indigenous people, and I wanted to show that we can be successful, but we also have to start closing that equity gap. We find that by better supporting students and figuring out their needs.”

Johnson is currently exploring the equity gap with indigenous students in higher education at MSUM. She received a Dille Fund for Excellence grant to fund a research project addressing the needs of MSUM’s indigenous student community through a survey that provided feedback on what the needs are, and what support indigenous students want to see. Johnson was able to hire three indigenous-identifying students who make up the first 100% indigenous led research teams at the university.    

Johnson’s work has been published in the Northern Plains Ethics Journal.

Other work Johnson is pursuing is helping to create a smudging policy at MSUM, which Johnson said NDSU has been an influential factor in with having an existing policy in place. 

“I was really proud of saying here’s my alma mater that has this existing smudging policy, and I can look to them for guidance to create our own at MSUM,” she said. 

Johnson is a member of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the National Indian Education Association, the Native American Indigenous Studies Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. At MSUM, she co-chairs the university's Diversity Equity & Inclusion Committee and serves on the Indian Education Advisory Council and Quad-College Powwow Committees. 

The awards will be formally presented at the Native American 40 Under 40 Dinner Reception on Wednesday, March 13, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Categories: Awards, Alumni
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