Dr. Carolee Dodge Francis is the first Native woman to serve as the department chair of the Civil Society and Community Studies Department in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology.
This role is not something she initially sought out, but she followed a calling which eventually led her to this position.
“I must say [I was] a little apprehensive because now I was like, ‘Okay, I have to do a really great job,’” she told The Daily Cardinal. “People ask [if] this something [I] planned, and for much of my life it's not always that I planned a direction but mostly just a calling of where I need to be.”
Dodge Francis is a member of the Oneida Nation and grew up on the Menominee Reservation, where her dad was a logger. When she left for school, she looked forward to returning to the reservation on breaks.
“When I went off to school, I would really truly enjoy going home because of the calmness of the environment going into the woods,” she emphasized. “It was such a haven.”
Because of her love for the reservation and her Native culture, Dodge Francis knew she wanted to work with Native communities, though she was unsure what career path she would ultimately pursue.
“I knew I was working with Native communities but in what role was unclear,” she said.
Dodge Francis found passion in focusing on community health and working for nonprofits. She founded two nonprofit organizations throughout her career – one for HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and the Dickinson Area Community Foundation, which provides grant money for nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
“This combination of health and nonprofit has really inspired and driven my career going forward,” she said.
Between her philanthropic work, Dodge Francis established a K-12 diabetes curriculum alongside the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Indian Health Service and National Institute of Health (NIH) to help provide education and prevention of the disease in native communities.
“Type 2 diabetes has been and is epidemic proportions for Native Americans,” she said.
According to Dodge Francis, Tribal leaders realized the onset of Type 2 diabetes was preventable and went to NIH asking for them to do more, which drove the creation of this curriculum.
“We need to start talking about the disease earlier and at a younger age because even today we see our young children, grade school age, high school age being diagnosed,” she said.
In addition to her passion for health, nonprofits and native groups, Dodge Francis is interested in making teaching and research accessible for students. She is currently in her last year of a NIH R25 grant which helps provide research opportunities for high school juniors and seniors, specifically Native American, Alaska Native and Puerto Rican students.
“I’ve known some of these students since 11th grade,” she said. “It's really fascinating to watch them grow, flourish and blossom in front of your eyes.”
Dodge Francis is excited to set the path for Native students and hopes that her role as department chair shows her students the possibilities out there.
“I can be that catalyst to show them the realm of opportunities that they might think about, that's really what inspires me,” she said.
As a professor at UW-Madison, Dodge Francis emphasized that faculty such as herself are here to support students and help them accomplish their goals.
“Be passionate, explore the possibilities and know we are here to support you,” she said.