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February 18, 2018 10:15 PM

SDSU Stepping Up To Recruit And Retain Native American Students

SDSU is stepping up efforts to recruit and retain Native American students. 
The Wokini Initiative kicked off in October.  It includes $100,000 in scholarships for students enrolled in South Dakota tribes and a new $4 million American Indian Student Center on campus.  

Samantha Bowker always pictured herself on a college campus, but she didn't picture herself in Brookings until a recruiter visited Cheyenne Eagle Butte High School.  

"She gave us an opportunity for us to see like it's hard to leave back home but you have to leave home to know the struggle and see there's more than just a reservation life," said Bowker. 
That counselor also let her know about the options for Native American students.

"I started my first college year in July, gave up half my summer to come and do free courses through the jumpstart program, get to know the campus, some professors, and other students as well," said Bowker. 

She's now in her junior year and says she's found a home away from home. 

"Pretty much been really close and like family to me. Having the center here is like a place back home. When I need to go home they're here to help me financially and supportively, they're finding any way for me to find that support," said Bowker. 

Bowker is just one of many Native students attending SDSU.
School officials have begun doing even more to make sure Bowker and future students are successful.

"I think it came out of years of trying to make a positive difference but being frustrated by the lack of permanent funding. So we would get a grant, we would do some pretty good work, but then the grant would go away," said SDSU President Barry Dunn. 

That's why the Wokini Initiative is so important. 

"We looked at the university in the mirror and said well we do have stable funding from some state and public lands that are assigned to us. So we decided to use those revenues every year for recruitment and improvement," said Dunn. 

Now, there are consistent scholarship dollars for Native students and that's not all.

"We were really grateful to receive a $4 million gift from an anonymous donor to build a new American Indian Student Center," said Dunn. 

A center that will help Native students feel more at home when they get to campus. 

"I think that's it right there, is we want it to be a second home and we want it to be a space where students are going to be comfortable," said American Indian Center Program Coordinator Morgan Catlett-Ausborn. 

For now, the temporary American Indian Student Center provides just that. 

"It's really nice to have somewhere comforting, where I could just hang out or do my homework or have someone to visit or anything like that," said Bowker. 

For some Native students leaving home can be tough, especially if it's the only life they know. So the center staff, tries to make sure they have everything they need. 

"They're willing to help you find a tutor. They're willing to help you find any assistance that you need with anything on campus. They're like the go-to people right away," said Bowker. 

"I come to Morgan a come hang out with her. She's like a school mom here. She helps me with everything, points me in the right direction, chews me out when I'm doing bad," said student Eli Feather Earring. 

"That's what we're here for and we want to be able to assist students in that way and moving forward, we want to be able to provide more of those other resources that students are looking for and need to be successful here," said Catlett-Ausborn. 

The center also offers programming that brings more than just the Native students together. 

"We have a lot of faculty and staff that come to those as well. Which is really awesome because then our students are able to kind of get to know them and what their roles are and kind of see them as another point of contact on this campus," said Catlett-Ausborn. 

With focus shifting to the new American Indian Student Center, everyone's opinions matter. Students and staff will get to help decide how it'll look. 

"We're going to have that lounge space. We're going to have the kitchen. We're going to have kind of our own little mini VBR which is like the big student union space. There will be student study rooms, prayer rooms, drum rooms, work spaces, all these things but all of it, when we were in these discussions is like how can this building best serve our students," said Catlett-Ausborn. 

"If Native Americans were to come and look at this with family, it could be the center stage where they can come and sit down or go to when they're done seeing the campus," said Bowker. 

It's just one of the ways SDSU hopes to recruit and retain those students moving forward. 

"It’s very exciting. I think it's long overdue. They represent 9 to 10% of the state's population. They have all the potential in the world. They just need a chance," said Dunn. 

The new center will be right in the middle of campus and students say that's a great thing because it'll be easier to get to. 

New Support For Native Students At SDSU
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