John Lowe ’81 has broken a lot of glass ceilings to attain his many accolades, such as becoming the first Native American man to be inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing. Even being an Indigenous person with a doctoral degree in nursing places him in a small class of peers: there are currently fewer than 25 in the United States, he said, and fewer than 100 in the whole world.
Now, he looks to mentor the next generation of Indigenous nurses.
“Who’s going to carry on the work? Who’s going to do even greater things?” he asks.
Lowe, who is Cherokee, Creek and Lenape, and an enrolled Eastern Cherokee tribal member, is now a professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing, and an Indigenous adjunct scholar affiliate at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. In 2019, he was appointed to the National Advisory Council of Nursing Research, an advisory body to the National Institute of Nursing Research at the National Institutes of Health.
To add to his long list of achievements, Lowe has also been named EMU’s 2021 Alum of the Year.
Throughout all of his work, one of Lowe’s foremost callings is to usher in the next generation of Indigenous nurses and health scientists. He’s currently developing a center for Native American and Indigenous Health Research at The University of Texas at Austin.
“We will address health disparities and the need for health equity among Native American and Indigenous people globally,” Lowe said. “Nurses are key to being able to do this. In Native and Indigenous communities, nurses are very respected, and they’re trusted.”
It’s important that Indigenous communities have their own health experts, Lowe said. He’s been recognized many times for his research and development of interventions for reducing and preventing substance abuse in Native American and Indigenous communities, including the Cherokee Self-Reliance, Native Self-Reliance, and Native-Reliance Models.
He said that Native American nurses who do this work in their own communities have a stronger commitment than outsiders.
“In a lot of Native communities, in health systems, our providers are sent to us via the Indian Health Service that’s housed in the U.S. Department of Health,” Lowe explained. “Many of those providers are there because they are on payback, so they’ve been provided their education via a scholarship or funding. And in payment, they agree to serve in an underserved area.”
But those folks typically only stay for a few years, until their agreement has been fulfilled. In contrast, he said, “if they are people from our own communities, these are their family, community, their ancestry … the commitment is so much greater.”
One of the barriers that aspiring nurses from Native communities face is the price of education – and how far they may have to go from home to get it. And especially for those students’ older relatives, leaving home to go to school can evoke the trauma of the Indian boarding school era that lasted from the late 1800s until 1978.
“You find this especially in the elder generation, where they will say phrases such as, ‘what will you do with my babies? Don’t hurt my babies,'” Lowe said.
Lowe’s own journey into academia began when he took a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) program in high school. He and his twin brother had been raised in North Carolina and Virginia before moving to their mother’s birthplace on the eastern shore of Maryland. As Lowe was finishing high school, he remembers a guidance counselor saying, “people where you’re from don’t go to college.”
Rather than resenting that counselor, Lowe has exemplified, time and time again, the axiom that ‘the best revenge is a life well lived.’
After earning his LPN and getting a few years of work experience, Lowe looked for a Christian school relatively close to home to pursue his bachelor’s degree, and decided on EMU. Even coming to a small college, Lowe had to adjust to living in a dorm instead of with his family.
“It was kind of strange for me, and I just stayed to myself,” he said. “I just went to class, and then in the evening I’d go to the library and rewrite my notes.”
By his senior year, he had come out of his shell – becoming president of the Student Nurses Association and going on a summer mission trip to Tanzania with three other nursing students that “really opened my world.”
The faculty at EMU also made a lasting impression on the young Lowe.
“I think now having been in academia for most of my life, I look back and I know the genuineness and the investment that the faculty had, a very unselfish motive,” he said. “They were there to really invest in the lives of students.”
Originally published 7/1/2021