University of Minnesota Promotes Inclusivity with Specialized Programs for Native American Students

Minnesota has long been home to a dynamic American Indian community, with 11 federally recognized tribal nations. But mass migration of tribal members in recent decades has contributed to an even larger American Indian population in the state. At the University of Minnesota (UMN), serving this community and its unique needs has — and remains — an important focus.

Many American Indian students grow up on reservations and are grounded in traditional culture, customs, and practices, which often make transitioning to college life difficult. Among the unique challenges they face are limited financial resources, a sense of duty to support their families, a lack of access to technology, and a struggle to incorporate their identities and familial and spiritual beliefs into mainstream American society.

Faculty members like Jean O’Brien are well aware of the plight of American Indian students. O’Brien is a distinguished McKnight Professor of History and chair of the department of American Indian studies at UMN, Twin Cities, the university’s flagship campus. UMN’s is the oldest American Indian studies department in the country.

“A lot of our students are nontraditional students. We have some students from reservation communities who are not equipped to deal with an urban community,” says O’Brien, who is an American Indian from the White Earth Ojibwe tribe and a founding member of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). “On a big, urban campus, it’s important that they find programs that help them feel comfortable.”

UMN offers an array of services and initiatives aimed at improving the retention and success of indigenous students. These efforts are part of a university-wide commitment to diversity, says Katrice Albert, vice president for equity and diversity at UMN.

Graduates of the University of Minnesota’s Master of Tribal Administration and  Governance (MTAG) program (photo credit: Brett Groehler/UMN)
Above: Graduates of the University of Minnesota’s Master of Tribal Administration and Governance (MTAG) program (photo credit: Brett Groehler/UMN) Top: The University of Minnesota’s Scott Hall, home to the department of American Indian studies

“The University of Minnesota advances excellence through the transformative power of equity and diversity. As such, the Office for Equity and Diversity has made a bona fide commitment to the recruitment, retention, and success of indigenous students, faculty, and staff,” Albert says. “For many years, we have worked in close partnership with tribal leaders to ensure that culturally relevant services and initiatives meet and exceed the specific needs of our American Indian population.”

And, according to O’Brien, while these students may be taking a little longer to graduate, they are going on to do “great things.” Some of these graduates now hold vital roles on campus, like Raul Aguilar, a recent graduate of UMN. Aguilar, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, works as an American Indian recruitment coordinator for the university’s office of undergraduate admissions and mentors incoming American Indian students.

“We all are family here. Coming from a reservation in a very small town to a big university, this was important for me,” says Aguilar, 26, who received a bachelor’s in communication studies from the university in 2013. “There are a lot of opportunities here. The fact that we have an office of indigenous nations opened my eyes to the resources and opportunities available to American Indian and multicultural students.”

The American Indian population numbers well over 35,000 people in the 11-county Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, according to the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Yet, compared with their representation in the general population, American Indians continue to be underrepresented in higher education. At UMN, American

Indians comprise just 1 percent of their 55,000 students.

Many students come from small, tightly knit reservations and often experience culture shock when they encounter UMN’s large, urban campus for the first time, says Jillian Rowan, senior coordinator for the university’s Circle of Indigenous Nations, which offers culturally relevant academic, social, and professional support to indigenous students.

“UMN is definitely a huge place. It’s important to have an office like ours that helps native students thrive,” Rowan says. “If you don’t have a successful first year, the chances of you graduating diminish, so we focus on that first year.”

UMN is composed of five campuses located in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Crookston, Morris, and Rochester.

Unlike many higher education institutions that often lump minority student groups together under one umbrella of services, UMN provides programming and services tailored to the specific needs of American Indian students.

In addition to the Circle of Indigenous Nations, other programs for indigenous students at the university include the following:

The American Indian Cultural House is the first of many cultural living-learning communities on the Twin Cities campus created to engage students in activities related to academic achievement, campus life and civic engagement, leadership development, and racial and cultural identity exploration.

The American Indian Student Cultural Center aims to promote cultural diversity and develop leadership among American Indian students while building understanding of American Indian people, issues, history, and culture.

The department of American Indian studies was established in 1969 and is the oldest such program in the country with departmental status.

The Master of Tribal Administration and Governance (MTAG) program on the Duluth campus seeks to train future American Indian tribal leaders and managers and is the only master’s program of its kind in the nation. Starting this fall, the university will offer its first bachelor’s program in Tribal Administration and Governance (BTAG).

Launched in 2010 after a series of meetings and consultations with American Indian tribal leaders and tribal governments throughout the Midwest, the MTAG program primarily attracts tribal leaders and those who work on reservations. A total of 53 master’s degrees have been awarded to three cohorts of students since the program began four years ago.

Innovative, trend-setting programs like MTAG are part of UMN’s long and continuing legacy of inclusive excellence, Albert says. “As an institution, we take our land-grant mission very seriously,” she says. “We are called to support American Indian education in impactful ways that lift up our indigenous communities at the university, as well as the tribal communities around the state of Minnesota.”●

Tannette Johnson-Elie is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.