Chronicling the Lives of Native Americans on Predominantly White Campuses - Higher Education

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Chronicling the Lives of Native Americans on Predominantly White Campuses

by Michelle J. Nealy

Amanda LeClair, a senior at the University of Wyoming, is not an activist by nature. In fact, she says she’s the strong silent type. But being one of a few American Indian college students at her university has caused LeClair to give voice to issues that impact her and other American Indian students on predominantly White college campuses.

 

LeClair, an Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Indian, grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, but attended a predominantly White high school in the neighboring Fremont County. As an American Indian teenager at a predominantly White institution, LeClair found it difficult to discuss her life experiences or those of her people to her peers.

 

“Growing up, I heard a lot of hurtful, stereotypical things,” says LeClair, “Like all Indians are drunks. We all get paid. We don’t have to pay any taxes.”

 

In high school LeClair kept her silence, trying not to draw attention to herself. But by her junior year in college, LeClair decided to speak out about the challenges facing Native students on predominantly White campuses in a forthcoming report that she intends to publish titled “Speaking Out: Experiences of Native Students on Predominantly White Campuses.”

 

The report focuses on the experiences of LeClair, five other American Indian students and two Native faculty members at the University of Wyoming. LeClair, who is in the final stages of the report, is completing her research as a requirement for the McNair Scholars program at the university. McNair prepares minority undergraduate students for graduate education success by requiring students to conduct empirical research and attend professional conferences pertinent to their areas of study.

 

“With Native students, especially on a predominantly White campuses, you don’t feel like you can challenge authority,” says LeClair, noting that her report provides a safe place for expression. “A lot of times, as a Native person, you are taught not to speak up and not to bring attention to yourself. It can be really uncomfortable for some Native students to talk about American Indian issues in class.”

 

LeClair’s interviews with American Indian students show that they have a very strong desire to preserve their Native culture and to return to their hometowns to share the knowledge after graduation. “Yes, we want to give back to our communities, and we are proud of our heritage,” she says. “Many of us leave home with the intentions of coming back to empower other members of the community.”

 

The most alarming finding of LeClair’s report was the lack of sensitivity for Native students among professors in the classroom at the university. Each Native student involved in LeClair’s report said they had been singled out by professors to serves as experts for all Native Americans.

 

In an anonymous personal narrative, one student in LeClair’s report said, “When I got to this campus, I didn’t really know anybody. I got into one of my education classes, and they brought up Native American issues. I was the only Native student in the class, but they all focused on me. I was really quiet and shy and scared because no one was like me on this campus. I shut down. It really scared me to be the only Native in class.”

 

“It is a lot of pressure for one person to speak as expert for an entire group of people,” says LeClair, noting that American Indian experiences are diverse. “I can only speak to my own experiences.”

 

Dr. Angela Jaime, an assistant professor of curriculum studies at the University of Wyoming and LeClair’s faculty adviser, says another facet of the report compares the collegiate experiences of Native faculty to that of Native students and identifies any changes in the obstacles Native students face in obtaining a college education. 

 

Thirty years ago, one of the most pressing problems impeding a Native student’s climb up the higher education ladder was the lack of financial resources. And, unfortunately, the financial challenges facing Native students have not changed, Jaime insists.

 

“Financial support is an issue,” Jaime says. “One of the biggest stereotypes is that college for American Indian students is free. That is such a misnomer.”

 

The percentage of American Indians who have at least a bachelor’s degree is the lowest of all racial groups, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2003, 18 percent of American Indian 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college, compared to 42 percent of Whites.

 

Another issue Native students experience is that they rarely see people who look like them on a daily or weekly basis, Jaime adds. “There are not many Native professors on campus. When you do not have mentors and role models, it becomes detrimental to your own self-esteem.”

 

The University of Wyoming, the only public university in the state, is home to more than 12,000 undergraduate students. Less than 100 are Native, although American Indians compose the second largest racial minority in the state.

 

Nationally, only a small percentage of U.S. institutions enroll a significant proportion — 25 percent or higher — of students who designate themselves as American Indian, the Department of Education reports. Almost all American Indian students attending postsecondary institutions are enrolled in two-year public institutions, mainly tribal colleges.

 

While American Indian students constitute less than 1 percent of the undergraduate population at the University of Wyoming, they make up more than 13 percent of the students at Central Wyoming College, a two-year college near the Wind River Indian Reservation.

 

Mark Nordeen, arts and sciences dean at Central Wyoming College, works closely with other university officials to ensure that a friendly environment for Native students exists. Although the school is not a tribal college, it offers students the TRIO program, a federally funded educational outreach initiative designed to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

 

“TRIO provides career counseling, financial aid counseling, academic advising, self-concept assessment and cultural activities,” Nordeen says, adding that the success and engagement of all students are monitored closely. “Students like to fall off the radar. Once we identify a student who is not engaged, we help them find solutions.”

 

LeClair hopes that her report will lead professors at the University of Wyoming and other institutions to finding more solutions. “There are still a lot of issues concerning Native students that need to be addressed. I hope my [report] will shed new light,” LeClair says.

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