Native Americans make up nearly 9 percent of South Dakota’s population but account for only 2.8 percent of students at the state’s public universities. Since 2017, South Dakota State University (SDSU) has worked to address that disparity through its Wokini Initiative, a name that derives from the Lakota word for “new life” or “a new beginning.”

Working with the holistic framework of Wokini, SDSU has demonstrated success in recruitment, retention, and support for Native American students. For example, of the six institutions under the South Dakota Board of Regents, SDSU was the only university to see an increase in enrollment among Indigenous students from 2017 to 2021, from 252 to 271 — even with the downward enrollment trend during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Probably the most glaring societal challenge in our state has its roots in our history — the long and tortured history between the White settlement that came with colonization and the Indigenous people of our state,” says Barry Dunn, PhD, president of SDSU.

Two major components of the Wokini Initiative are the scholarship program and the American Indian Student Center on campus. 

Eligible scholarship students can receive up to $5,000 per year for five years, which is designed as gap funding between government and non-university scholarships. This aspect of the initiative is critical, given that high costs of college are cited as a major barrier for enrollment and completion among Native American students. For example, 72 percent of respondents in the National Study on College Affordability for Indigenous Students said they had run out of money at least once within the past six months, and 65 percent reported a household income of less than $35,000 annually.

The Wokinki Initiative at SDSU has helped in the recruitment, retention, and support of Native American students, despite declining enrollment trends in the state.
The Wokinki Initiative at SDSU has helped in the recruitment, retention, and support of Native American students, despite declining enrollment trends in the state.

The American Indian Student Center serves as a hub for Indigenous students and offers resources to support and retain them. Services include financial aid guidance, community and professional referrals, peer mentoring and tutoring, and a variety of social, cultural, and academic programming. 

In addition to the scholarship program and student center, the Wokini Initiative has funded the construction of the Oyate Yuwitaya Tipi living-learning community for first-year Indigenous students.

“When a public university accepts federal resources and says it provides access to all, I take that responsibility seriously. We’re going to figure out a way to get access to all — and that means to the largest minority in our state,” Dunn says. “This is a way to attack our state’s challenge regarding the Indigenous people of our state and the poverty that exists on the reservations and in urban communities in South Dakota.”

In conjunction with SDSU’s Wokini Initiative, the university has intensified its collaboration with tribal colleges and universities and Native American tribes directly to better understand the needs of students. The initiative also supports research projects and adult leadership development programs designed to improve economic opportunity in tribal communities.

This article was published in our June 2023 issue.