UW’s Native American graduates are important to the Wind River Reservation

May 17, 2013

In the mid 1990’s the University of Wyoming made a conscious effort to attract more Native American students to the University. Over the years recruitment and retention of students from the Wind River Reservation has been challenging.  New efforts could change things and many believe that will be important for the long term health of the Reservation.

BOB BECK:  Tanaya Moon Morris was a U-W Native American student around the time when the program first got cranked up. She is now the U-W Assistant Director of Admissions who is also the multi-cultural recruitment coordinator. Morris says it’s a challenge to bring and retain native students, both because of cultural issues and due to policies at the University.  For instance some neighboring Colleges and Universities offer more tuition breaks and other incentives for Native students than U-W.

TANAYA MOON MORRIS:  Fort Lewis College in Colorado, if you are an enrolled member of a tribe…free tuition and fees.  Utah, there’s housing options for Native students, so some of our competitors…they have a lot more to offer Native students than what we are offering. 

BECK:  Morris says another thing she wants to focus on is personal communication and building relationships with people on the reservation. 

BECK: That message has been fed to the University administration and they are moving to solve it.  Vice President of Student Affairs Sara Axelson agrees that constant communication seems to make a difference to Native students.  Morris also convinced her to add a direct Native American contact for students who Axelson says will start soon.

SARA AXELSON:  We have a full time councilor and with a graduate assistant helping to support our native students.  And I think it will really do a lot in terms of just the coordination and the point of contact, you know it’s just easier from a communication standpoint. 

BECK:  Morris says all of this should make a tremendous difference.  Here’s something you should understand, that transition from the reservation to a University without a lot of Native support services can be a little daunting and sometimes it leads to dropping out.  But she quickly adds don’t underestimate their interest in education.

MORRIS:  You will not find Native communities more driven to education than the native communities; our history has deemed that really the only thing that can’t be taken away from us is what we know.

BECK:  Amanda LeClair agrees. She is a kindergarten aide at Fort Washakie School after receiving both her undergrad and Masters Degrees from the University of Wyoming.  She says tribal leaders made it clear that they want young people to get degrees and possibly to return to the reservation with that knowledge.

AMANDA LeCLAIR:  Yea, that was something I heard in my life, definitely, especially in STEM programs like science and engineering and everything. That there’s a real need for that out here.

BECK:  LeClair did return and now says that she believes part of her responsibility in the school system is to set an example, so that the children she deals with also aspire to go to college.

LeCLAIR:  That’s a huge thing when you see someone from your community who you admire, are related to, or whoever, that goes away and gets their degree and comes back.  And you see that and you see them working in a job and you know they went away and came back and that’s ok. 

BECK:  Jordan Dresser works in marketing for the Wind River Hotel and Casino after getting his degree from U-W in journalism.  For him what made coming to U-W difficult was the lack of a large Native American population in Laramie. 

JORDAN DRESSER:  You’re coming from the reservation where everyone is like you.  You know you are all Native and you have that all in common, but then you go to a place where you’re in the minority and I think that’s very difficult.  And I think it’s hard to describe especially to non-native people, you know because I think they think, well you know other students are leaving home too, I think it’s just different for Native students.

BECK:  Dresser was able to find a group of Native American students to bond with and also was blessed to find some Native American journalism mentors to help him with his craft.  Because of that support, he felt obligated to succeed.  But the conflict came after he graduated when he had to decide whether to work at a Newspaper or return to the Wind River Reservation and help the Northern Arapaho tribe. He decided to return.

DRESSER: For me that was the dilemma that I had, it was a conflict I had within myself.  And I knew that in order to settle it I had to come home and see what I could try to do.  Rather than just leave with it and say thank you tribe, thank you Northern Arapaho tribe for giving me this opportunity and now I’m going to live my dream. 

BECK:  Now he’s doing his own mentoring and he says with more young people getting degrees and returning to Wind River, it is making a difference.

Back at the University of Wyoming Tanaya Moon Morris has also noted the difference and is  looking at innovative ways to help Wind River Reservation students get their degrees.  Since the first two years away from the Reservation seem to be the most difficult, she is trying to bridge things for some students by encouraging them to attend Central Wyoming College.

MORRIS:   They are still close to home they start at CWC and they do quite well and are able to establish their footing in a higher Ed system and then it’s not such a big jump to take them from CWC to UW.

BECK:  Morris says she is very optimistic that their efforts will pay off.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.