BROOKINGS, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota State University’s efforts to give Native American students better access to higher education is getting national attention. The Bush Foundation has awarded SDSU with a $500,000 grant for its Wokini Initiative.
SDSU president Barry Dunn launched this program about three years ago, to increase programming and support to enrolled members of the state’s nine tribal nations and other tribal organizations in the state.
We’re talking with Dunn about the honor and why the program is vital for Native American inclusion on campus.
There’s a photo of the past in SDSU president Barry Dunn’s office. It’s of his mom, Sarah, when she was a little girl.
“When my mother was born, she was not considered a citizen of the United States,” Dunn said.
He says his mom, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, grew up in extreme poverty. That didn’t stop her from graduating from college.
“She benefited from higher education,” Dunn said.
That personal connection is a driving force behind why Dunn values the Wokini Initiative here. The Bush Foundation awarded it its Bush Prize working to eliminate significant barriers American Indian students face in achieving a college degree.The word Wokini is Lakota for a new beginning.
“Through scholarships, and really, recruiting, very strong recruiting. Advising and counseling, we’re reaching out to Native American students across South Dakota,” Dunn said.
Local organizations are also getting behind Native American students. 3M recently gave Wokini $50,000. Though Dunn is recognized for leading the effort, he says the Native American students here deserve the spotlight.
“It was their success that got us the national attention. The credit goes to them,” Dunn said.
Dunn says Wokini’s first crop of Native American students has an 80-percent retention rate from freshman to sophomore year. The money from the Bush Foundation will go back into the program.
“Absolutely, there are challenges (to getting access to higher education), and we’re trying to reduce those and support them. We want young people across, in that demographic, to understand we care about them and that we’re here to help them meet those challenges,” Dunn said.
His mom’s past takes up a small corner of Dunn’s office, but it’s bigger presence is in how it’s led him to shape the future for other Native American sons and daughters.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start now and change the ending. We’re starting a new, or we’re changing the ending for young people across South Dakota,” Dunn said.