Native students lack representation on campus

Edit and correction: The print edition of this story erroneously stated that “Native Americans make up just 0.0045 percent of Augustana’s student population.” The correct number is 0.45 percent.

On Nov. 22, Marissa Pacheco set a plate filled with sage leaves and tobacco beneath a tree in her backyard.

She looked up towards the spirit world and grieved for her ancestors who died during the colonization of Native American lands. She prayed for healing and gave thanks for their sacrifice.

In place of Thanksgiving each year, Pacheco’s family observes a Day of Mourning, a silent ceremony practiced by many Native citizens across the country.

A member of the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation near Morton, Minnesota, Pacheco is one of eight Native American students at Augustana University.

“There’s a culture right underneath us that we forget about,” Pacheco said. “We [Native Americans] have our own cultures and our own ways, but they’re never represented.”

With 1,790 undergraduate students, Native Americans make up just 0.45 percent of Augustana’s student population, according to the university’s 2018 diversity and inclusion report.

This representational deficit stems from a myriad of problems, including expensive tuition at private universities, discrimination on campus and poor retention rates for students of non-white backgrounds.

“We want more of our culture here,” Pacheco said. “Diversity is a virtue of Augustana, and [administrators] say that, but where’s the representation?”

Challenging numbers

In the last strategic plan, Augustana wanted to enroll more minority students and planned to raise the number from 14.6 percent to 20 percent by 2019.

Today, 17.3 percent of the student body is composed of minority students—an almost three percent shortfall from the goal set in 2014.

Nancy Davidson, vice president of enrollment, said the main hurdles in attending Augustana include the private university sticker price and homogenous student body demographics.

“[Native Americans] don’t see students like themselves,” Davidson said. “When the majority of your student population is white, it’s harder to imagine yourself there than if you were looking at a school with a much more diverse population.”

Pacheco said that her high school historically struggled retaining Native American students. However, with the help of her father, an “Indian education” classroom now provides a safe space for Native students to ask for help and share experiences.

In addition, strict rules surrounding benefits and reservation membership hinder some students from leaving to attend college.

Pacheco said if she lives off of the reservation for more than five years without attending college or changing her address, she will no longer receive benefits for healthcare or education.

“Being away is hard because I’m not around people,” Pacheco said. “But it’s also hard because the benefits we have get smaller the longer that I’m away.”

Discrimination on campus

According to Mark Blackburn, acting Dean of Students and former director of diversity and inclusion, Native Americans face both economic and social discrimination.

“It’s top-down, from the government to the smallest household,” Blackburn said. “The discriminatory nature really lessens the opportunities for those students.”

Over his 12 year tenure at Augustana, Blackburn estimates that around 50 to 100 students have transferred or dropped out, in part, because of discrimination and cultural exhaustion.

Pacheco, a junior English and French major, considered transferring after her first semester as these obstacles seeped into her college experience. She said her classmates would ask if her father was an alcoholic, make racist jokes assuming she was from India and compare her to the Disney version of Pocahontas.

“I felt like an outsider,” Pacheco said. “And I still feel that way sometimes, but I’ve learned to cope with it. It’s hard not being around people that are like you.”

As Augustana is a majority white, Christian college, Blackburn said apathy for minority students is intensified without the proper resources or initiatives to combat prejudice on campus.

“We can welcome everyone and still have barriers that prevent people from succeeding,” Blackburn said.

Currently, Augustana does not actively celebrate Native American Heritage Month in November, recognize sacred ground or have a Native American Student Union.

New horizons

In the near future, Pacheco plans to start a student union to bring together Native students from all nations, educate non-Native students and establish a presence on campus for the minority group.

She said the union could be difficult with such a small Native population, especially as cultural practices differ by tribe. However, Pacheco hopes their shared community-interest can bridge the gap.

“It was really hard freshman year because I was adjusting and I didn’t have any of my cousins, family [or] friends from home,” Pacheco said.

On an administrative level, Blackburn said Augustana is partnering with Teach for America to identify opportunities for local Native students, looking at making college entrance exams scores optional for admission and creating ‘micro-grants’ for students struggling to pay rent or afford groceries during the academic year.

Blackburn also said that major plans to increase diversity on campus will be included in the 2030 strategic plan, set to be unveiled in 2019.

In addition to these new programs, Augustana will continue to host Camp Thunderbird, a summer college preparation camp for Native high school juniors and seniors.

Davidson said the university also offers Native American-specific scholarships, including the William Randolph Hearst, Prairie Sage and Horatio Alger-Denny Sanford scholarships, in addition to eight others.

“The inability to call out those discriminatory behaviors, those microaggressions, those [choices] to not assimilate to the dominant culture builds,” Blackburn said. “If no one calls it out, then it will keep manifesting.”

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