SHERIDAN — A Sheridan College administrator recently attended a conference in Denver focused on higher education for Native Americans. The theme has been consistent for Sheridan College since Sept. 2017, when racial slurs were written on a whiteboard on the dorm room door of two Native American students.
Leah Barrett, Sheridan College vice president of student affairs, went to the two-day conference in late August at the invitation of the American Indian College Fund, which hosted the event.
About 65 people attended the conference, including Tribal elders and administrators and students from both Native American and non-Native American colleges and universities.
Wendy Smith, Sheridan College assistant vice president for strategic communication and public relations, said AICF reached out to the college based on its handling of the racial slurs last fall.
“A result of our efforts is that we are seen as a true partner at a really high level in these initiatives,” Smith said. “We really believe we can help move the needle.”
The conference focused on Native American access to higher education and support for the students once they enroll in college, a similar topic to a roundtable hosted by Sheridan College in February.
The “Reclaiming Native Truth” project was heavily discussed during the conference. It is a national project focused on ending negative stereotypes and narratives associated with Native Americans.
Barrett said the project showed that understanding and acknowledging Native American history is important, but it is also equally vital to understand their role in modern society.
“It’s really about telling the story of Native Americans and their cultural aspects that are similar to that of all people,” Barrett said. “People know so little about American Indians in the United States today.”
In terms of takeaways from the conference, Barrett said she hopes for an increase in upstanding actions — as opposed to bystanding, which connotes passivity — from the Sheridan College community. This means “having the skills and capacity to call out when you hear or read or view a racist comment,” Barrett explained.
Students from universities including Stanford and the University of Colorado Boulder spoke at the conference, highlighting the importance of having a physical space on campus where they can interact with people from a similar background.
Sheridan College is in the process of designing a similar location on campus focused on supporting Native American students and culture. The activities in the currently unnamed center will be open to all students, faculty and staff.
Barrett said Sheridan College hopes to build an office in the center for an additional staff member to work with students — likely as part of the College Success program already in place on campus — and have kitchen equipment to aid the preparation of Native American food.
Along the same lines, Barrett said the college aims to increase the number of Native American students in attendance but wants to have support systems in place first. That way, she said, the college can effectively assist students once they enroll.
Moreover, Barrett said administrators are in the process of talking with students, faculty and staff about measuring success regarding this topic. There are no specific, tangible goals set so far.
Barrett said there have been a few unofficial discussion regarding what success might look like. Aspects of success include more Native American students and staff; incorporating more cultural aspects into the college’s overall curriculum; anecdotal evidence from students and employees using upstanding intervention techniques; and comfort levels regarding conversations about differences.
The last area is important, Barrett said, because most students will work with people from different backgrounds in the future, if they haven’t already. This is especially true due to the country’s changing demographics. Less than 50 percent of the U.S. will be white by 2045, according to a recent Census Bureau study.
“Our responsibility is to build students’ capacity to work with people that are different than them,” Barrett said. “If you grew up on a reservation or on a ranch or you grew up in a small or large community, those commonalities are really important, even though we approach them differently.”
Change will not occur overnight, but top administrators appear to be taking the issue of Native American higher education seriously, a positive sign going forward.