The panel discussion, attended by about 30 faculty and staff members, was meant to provide a forum for academically high-achieving American Indian students to share their successes and find ways to build on those successes.
The students who participated come to MSU from several different states and have a variety of majors. A number of the students said they plan to use what they learn at the university to return home to help their communities, such as Nicolette Brown, a freshman in biomedicine from Fort Washakie, Wyo. Brown, who is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, hopes to become a pediatrician so that she can help children.
Jioanna Carjuzza, an education professor who served as the panel's moderator, asked about the panelists' support systems. Several students named the Nations and the American Indian Council, two campus organizations, as sources of strength at the university.
"I really love (the Nations) because when I need a pick-me-up, that's where I know I can go," said Billie Falcon, a sophomore majoring in community health from Fort Peck. "The American Indian Council (in Wilson Hall) is like my second home," she added.
Those groups are important because of the activities that are built into them and the staff members who facilitate the groups, and also because they enable connections with other Indian students, another student added.
"We are family," Jeremy Stands Over Bull, a member of the Crow Tribe from Pryor, said of his fellow American Indian students. "I consider these people here my brothers and sisters."
Another student noted how important his professors have been to his experience at MSU.
"I've been fortunate to have gotten to know lots of my professors," said Nicholas Ross-Dick, a junior majoring in philosophy and sociology and a member of the Yakama Tribe from White Swan, Wash. The one-on-one time with those professors has been helpful, both academically and personally, he added.
DaleRae Green, a freshman majoring in pre-nursing and a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe from Fort Washakie, Wyo., said her adviser and classmates have become like family to her. Talking with counselors at MSU'S Counseling and Psychological Services has also been helpful, Falcon said.
The students also detailed a number of challenges they have faced throughout their college careers, from feeling like they stand out as minorities in class to frustrations with campus offices and university bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
"Being a person of color, I tend to feel out of place in the classroom, or even just going to the store," said Stands Over Bull.
Students said that being expected to speak frequently in class is also a difficulty.
"In Crow culture, we don't even say our name in public," Stands Over Bull said.
Ross-Dick said he has felt "outclassed" by his peers, which leaves him feeling intimidated.
"I've struggled with the fast-pace, but I'm starting to get more acclimated to it," he said.
Others expressed anguish at being away from their families and reservation communities.
"People on my reservation are dying left and right," said Zhona Tang, a junior in secondary education from Busby and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. "I try to go home every weekend."
The hardest part about being away from home is worrying, Tang added, because she doesn't want her people to think she has forgotten them.
Panelists also had some recommendations for how faculty and staff members could improve American Indian students' experiences.
Stands Over Bull thinks the university is "at the forefront of Native American higher education," but he would like to see diversity at the university promoted more.
"I would like to see the attitude of we are equal," he said. "I'd like to have more Native American professors, and in other fields besides Native American studies."
Another student mentioned a desire to be treated as an individual, rather than first being identified as Native American.
"Don't generalize all Indians," Tang said. "It's the worst thing you could do. We all have different passions."
And, another student said the best thing professors could do is treat Indians like all the other students in their classrooms.
"Treat us all the same, because we're not really different," Green said. "We're just like everybody else."
Part of the reason the panel discussion was held is that all too often, professors and administrators focus on problems such as widening achievement gaps between American Indians and other students, said Jim Burns, American Indian student adviser in the Department of Native American Studies. Focusing on students' strengths, and building off of them, he said, is a different approach.
The presentation was sponsored by the College of Letters and Science, the Department of Native American Studies, the Native American Education Advisory Board, and the American Indian Council.
Jim Burns, (406) 994-4880 or firstname.lastname@example.org