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Programs lead to gains in Indian recruitment, retention
STANFORD -- Jim Larimore knew he had his work cut out for him eight years ago, when he came to Stanford University to serve as assistant dean for the campus American Indian student population.
Not only was Indian student recruitment disorganized, "but the university was losing about half the freshman Indian class every year," said Larimore, a Comanche who formerly had worked as an assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College.
"There were Indian students who would literally come here, spend a week, and get on a bus or plane and go home," Larimore said. "There just wasn't a real comfortable way for these students to connect."
Working closely with faculty and staff members in the offices of Undergraduate Admissions and Student Affairs, Larimore and others in the university's Indian community set to work overhauling the recruitment process, devising new orientation programs, and strengthening the university's cultural support network.
The result: There are now 160 American Indian and Alaska Native students from close to 50 different tribal backgrounds enrolled at Stanford - a figure nearly as high as all the Ivy League schools combined.
Even more significant, Stanford's undergraduate Indian retention rate is about 90 percent - more than twice the national average. Thirty American Indian students will receive Stanford degrees in June - 17 undergraduate, seven graduate and six professional school.
"What we've seen here is a turnaround, based on not a very large investment of dollars on the part of the university," said Larimore, who will be reducing his position to 75 percent time for the next two years in order to study for a Stanford master's in education.
"It's a spectacular achievement," agreed James Lyons, who oversaw much of the change as former dean of student affairs. "That result isn't accidental; it is the result of some strategies put in place nearly a decade ago."
American Indians first became a visible presence at Stanford in 1970, when four students joined together to form the Stanford American Indian Organization. Among their goals were increased recruitment of Native American students and the elimination of the Stanford Indian mascot.
While they scored early success with the mascot issue - then-President Richard Lyman agreed to ban the Indian logo in 1972, to the endless dismay of some Stanford alumni - the university found recruitment of new Indian students tougher going.
From 1975 to 1985, the total number of Native American students, undergraduate and graduate, averaged around 70 a year, less than 1 percent of the student population.
"The entire recruitment system consisted of an index- card box that had, maybe, about 60 high schools that Indian students had applied from in the past," Larimore said. "I knew from my experience that half of the schools had been closed - the list hadn't been updated since 1974."
Using a database that Larimore had developed at Dartmouth, Stanford's Office of Admissions began casting its net to a much wider circle of high schools serving Native Americans throughout the United States.
The admissions office collaborated with others to develop a tabloid newspaper that could be mailed to every Indian applicant, and designated staff members who would focus on Native American recruitment.
Last fall, assistant admissions director Nicole Burrell drove literally hundreds of miles visiting dozens of rural and reservation schools in Northern California, Oregon, New Mexico and Arizona.
"These schools are off the beaten path of most college fairs, and a lot of their counselors don't have access to information about schools like Stanford," said Burrell, a 1989 Stanford graduate whose roots go back to the Tohono 'O'odham tribe in Arizona.
"These students can read the glossy stuff about Stanford, but I think it's important having a tangible person coming to them and saying, 'Yes, you can do it.' "
Stanford's admissions office also has taken steps to improve the Indian self-identification process. Today, all students who check off "American Indian" on their Stanford applications are sent a follow-up form asking them to detail their tribal backgrounds and the extent of their contact with native people.
"If we accept students who claim American Indian ancestry, but they haven't maintained contact with their home communities, that could work against our efforts to create a truly diverse student body," Larimore said.
"Collecting tribal information also helps us to match these students with any outside scholarships for which they might qualify."
Telling Indian students about Stanford is one challenge; keeping them on campus is another.
Some bright Indian students may not have received the best preparation from government, rural or inner-city schools. Others, accustomed to the stillness of the countryside, find life at Stanford too bustling and competitive - and completely at odds with the values they were taught.
"Indian people have a very strong resistance to assimilation," Larimore said. "That's part of the reason we're still here."
To help Indian students develop self-confidence in their own academic abilities, Larimore and former graduate student Greg Sarris managed to sell Stanford on the idea of an intense "academic boot camp" for incoming students, called the American Indian Summer Institute.
The institute, attended voluntarily by about half of all admitted Indian freshmen for the past five summers, requires incoming students to do 20 chapters of pre-calculus plus two chapters of calculus in three weeks, and to write five to six English papers - roughly the equivalent of the fall quarter freshman writing program.
Students are encouraged to show their drafts to each other and to seek out peer tutors if necessary. The program also teaches the survival skills students may need in daily class interaction.
For example, Larimore said, in a typical Stanford Cultures, Ideas and Values discussion section, 15 or 20 students will clamor for the attention of the teaching assistant.
"For many native students, the idea of competing for attention - presenting themselves in a way that not only makes them look good, but their peers look bad - is entirely inappropriate. If they did that at home, they'd be ostracized," he said.
"In the past, some Indian students would take that situation and feel bad about it. Others would think, 'I can't believe these people are so rude; I'm not going to talk to them anymore.'
"We try and help students understand that these are situations they're going to get into, and to look for ways that they can feel confident speaking from their own experience, instead of getting into a game that conflicts with their own value orientation."
Students go home after the institute for a three-week breather, then come back to Stanford for a special pre-orientation program for all new Indian freshmen and transfer students, a few days before regular orientation begins.
The pre-orientation gives the new students time to socialize with returning upperclass Indian students, staff and faculty, and to meet helpful staff members in the Financial Aids Office, Office of Admissions and the Undergraduate Advising Center.
Campus support systems
In addition to the summer institute, probably the most important factor in Indian student retention at Stanford has been a strengthened emphasis on community-building. The dozens of tribes represented at Stanford are, in fact, nations - often different, sometimes even traditional adversaries.
"To folks outside, this looks like a cohesive group," Larimore said. "But within the community, we realize that it's about as different a collection of folks as those you might meet at the Bechtel International Center."
Nevertheless, he said, "when they come to Stanford, we say, 'You're all one community now. Get along with your brothers and sisters and help each other.' "
Denni Woodward, a Mescalero Apache who has worked at Stanford for 12 years, is a cornerstone of the Indian community on campus.
As assistant director and program coordinator of the 5- year-old American Indian Program Office, she advises more than 20 student groups, ranging from the Stanford American Indian Medical Students and the Native American Law Student Association to planning committees for the Stanford Powwow.
She also edits the Native American community newsletter, Coming Voice, and the Native American recruiting tabloid; helps coordinate Indian orientation and graduation programming, and oversees community gatherings that take place in the Native American Cultural Center, downstairs in the Old Union Clubhouse.
The Native American theme house, Muwekma-Tah-Ruk - "House of the People," in Ohlone - also has done much to provide Indian students with a more homelike atmosphere.
The house, which had been shuttled for years among the larger dorms on campus, now has a cozier location on the Row in what was once Lathrop House. Larimore served as its first resident fellow, and Assistant Dean of Summer Session and Continuing Studies Andrew Lisac, a Tututni/Takelma, is the current resident fellow.
About half of its 30 upperclass residents are Native Americans, and many more Indian freshmen drop by the house on a regular basis for meals, a game of volleyball, and late-night peer tutoring or conversation. (Currently, freshmen are not permitted to live on the Row, although residents are working to have the rule changed.)
Last fall, students practiced beadwork and pottery- making at the house as part of a weekly seminar on Native American arts and crafts. Subsequent seminars have examined issues of Native American identity and contemporary Native American issues, such as health care delivery on reservations.
"There really is a sense of family here," said senior Iain Lamb, the house resident assistant. "At the same time, it's a site for learning about Native American people and cultures, and about the relationship between Native and non-Native Americans."
In all, Stanford's work with American Indian recruitment and retention has been so successful that Larimore hopes more universities will adopt it as a model. He particularly would like to develop a national network of college Indian program directors, who could then share information about their experiences and programs.
With national college graduation rates for Indians still hovering at about 7 percent, he said, it can't come too soon.
"At many state universities, the predominant attitude is that the problems of Indian students are not the fault of the institution, but of the individual students," Larimore said.
"As long as that attitude is one that people hold to, Indian students are going to suffer the same fate that they have been."
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