Creating Visibility and Supportive Campus Environments for Native American Students

The American Indian College Fund explored how to support higher education’s role in creating safe and welcoming environments and greater visibility for American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) students at a convening it hosted of students, tribal college leaders and leaders from mainstream institutions of higher education (IHE), policy organizations and funders.

What we heard affirmed what we already knew — for Native students to be successful in college the institution must be committed to their inclusion.

Native students shared they want to go to college in an environment where their unique tribal identities are recognized, where their history and current lives are included in the curriculum and in campus life, and where they are visible.

Supporting education equity for Native students takes many forms. Native students at tribal colleges and mainstream institutions have benefited from Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s support of access to higher education through scholarships. The American Indian College Fund works to expand student support to specific ways that higher education institutions can be proactive with inclusion.

Four specific approaches were identified that can have an immediate impact on the experiences of Native students with higher education:

  1. Land acknowledgment: All higher education institutions exist on land that once served as the homeland of one or more tribal nations. Westward expansion, war and removal all impacted the abilities of tribes to situate themselves or have claims on homelands. When land acknowledgment occurs, Native students’ existence and experience is validated. I’ve learned that it is also a good educational exercise because most people don’t know whose homelands they are living on.

2. Representation in curriculum, at events and functions and in public materials: The history and contemporary experiences of indigenous peoples are usually not represented in curriculum. In addition, many times Native peoples are not onstage or giving presentations and are rarely included in public-facing places like websites and brochures. IHE can examine and modify curriculum to insure inclusion. For example, any American government class that doesn’t include tribal governments as a form of governance in the U.S. should immediately remedy that. When events are organized and representatives of various populations are invited to participate, inclusion of Native speakers should be automatically considered and materials and media should be reviewed to determine if Native student photos and stories are included.

3. Data inclusion: Ensuring the institution’s leadership knows the status of Native students is critical to success, whether it is one student or 400. Often the numbers are used as an excuse for not knowing the status of Native students and for not reporting that status to the public and to enrolled students. This may require extra effort to define who will be included in that population and what reporting will look like, but it is essential to overcoming invisibility.

4. Facilitating pathways through expanded recruitment, scholarship support and student services: IHE should examine their recruitment footprint and ensure enough outreach to have a broad group of potential students. They should also ensure sufficient financial support and targeted student services are provided, including designated advisors and counselors. Students also shared that having their own space matters. Native student centers and residential housing creates visible support on campus.

It takes intentional effort and sufficient investment to create climates where Native students can succeed. Native students are themselves excellent informants about what works. Tribal colleges and universities are good resources for best practices and strategic partnerships to support success.


Cheryl Crazy Bull is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Tribe and is President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund. She has more than 30 years of experience in Native higher education.

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