NASA Panel Brings Critical Discussion of Diversity

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The recently-revitalized Native American Students Association (NASA) has augmented its campus presence this semester with a calendar of events planned for Native History Month.

NASA was re-chartered last year after a long hiatus at the initiative of Brent Stanfield ’14, according toNASA President Daniel Orr ’16. According to some sources, he said, NASA was one of the founding members of the IC but the group has come and gone as the number Native students has waxed and waned over the years. There are currently six members in NASA (an open group) according to Orr and four Native students on campus according to NASA member Julia Wakeford ’18.

NASA began conversations about planning Native Heritage Month events last semester. “We wanted to do events in general because no one knew about us, there’s a lack of native representation at all on campus. There are people here at Swat who didn’t know Indians were alive,” Orr said.

During the first event last Thursday, students heard from writer, storyteller, and cultural consultant Ed Edmo. The panel and discussion on Examining Diversity: Native Representation in Higher Education took place last Friday night. Moderated by Professor of Spanish Nanci Buiza, the panelists included Lenape language instructor Shelley DePaul, Director of the Virginia Indian Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Karenne Wood, University of Pennsylvania Native American and Indigenous Studies Coordinator Margaret Bruchac, and Swarthmore Director of Admissions JT Duck.

Buiza posed questions at the beginning of the panel centering on what it means for a student body, faculty, curriculum, and campus to be truly “diverse.”

Wood spoke to the tension inherent in including Native voices in academia appropriately. “I started my doctoral work because I got angry,” she said, having been called a “’self-styled tribal historian.’ I couldn’t be an expert on my people’s history unless I had a PhD, so I thought I’d get one.” Since then, Wood has labored to create a Native Studies program at the University of Virginia to allow Native students to study their own history and to build UVA’s relationship with the surrounding Native communities.

Getting “diversity” on college campuses is not self-evident. “Sometimes universities use diversity as a buzzword,” Wood said. “It’s like progress. We don’t define it; we just say we’re getting there.”

This is rendered more difficult in the admissions process, where many Native high school students are “not academically qualified for Swarthmore,” according to Duck. While Swarthmore is “not for everyone, we want to reach students who don’t know they’re a good match for Swarthmore.” This involves attending summer conferences for Native students in the college process, like College Horizons. Native students apply to the program, which helps match them with colleges, according Wakeford who participated in the program.

Duck stated that while “we treat every applicant to the college according to their specific context” and Swarthmore practices Affirmative Action, some Native students may not be adequately prepared to attend Swarthmore for curricular reasons. The Admissions Office tries to represent Swarthmore as accurately as possible to applicants – even as a place where Native students may not thrive or find a community. It is then up to the student to decide if that is a college experience they want.

The Admissions Office is currently working to improve communication with the Dean’s office to transmit Admissions’ knowledge of the student and their needs once on campus. They are also working on the creation of a bridge program for students of minority background before matriculating.

Students questioned Swarthmore’s ability to respond to student needs on campus once they arrive on campus. In an interview, audience member Pati Gutiérrez-Fregoso ’15 responded to the comment that Admissions tries to “recruit people who are prepared for Swat, and I was not prepared for Swat.”

No matter how accurately Swarthmore tries to represent itself, students may still struggle when they get to campus. “A lot of kids who don’t come from families who go to college may think they can handle it but can’t,” Orr said, and that we need to ask “what needs to be here to support them. For native students there’s no support or guidance here or even consideration of the unique situation native students might come from.”

“What is Swat’s role?” Gutiérrez-Fregoso asked. “Is it not to prepare people or are we just maintaining the status quo by getting people who are prepared over and over again?”

The challenge is to create a support system for Native and other minority students, which requires anticipating their needs before they arrive on campus. “I feel Swat has a responsibility, because of the resources we have, to offer those to other people,” Gutiérrez-Fregoso said. “They should be recruiting more, especially low-income folks and other people who would not have access to these resources – but also should they? Should we make students have to deal with this when there are other options?”

If Swarthmore wants to bring more Native students to campus, “we don’t want to leave them on their own to be spiritually and psychologically broken down and leave or have a terrible time,” said Davis Logan ’17, NASA’s treasurer. “That includes administration but it also takes a sizable population supported by the administration and faculty and courses. Just bringing Native students here would not solve the problem.”

One such support system that Bruchac has instituted at other colleges is to have a Native elder on campus and a community house. One concern is that this would not be feasible due to the enormous diversity in American Indian tribes. Both Orr and Wakeford said that approaching an elder not from one’s own community might be difficult.

Another such support structure is the presence of Native faculty, and adequate support for that faculty. Orr said that part of this support system should include “at least if not Native faculty then Native administrators… so you don’t have to go someone and explain to them first why you feel the way you do.” DePaul is currently the only Native instructor at Swarthmore.

Buiza also raised the question of Native representation in curricula. Panelists and students discussed the importance of a Native Studies program at Swarthmore, but also the inclusion of a decolonized curriculum college-wide and the inclusion of Native issues in other disciplines. Many cautioned against the tokenism inherent in bringing a Native curriculum or Native students to campus solely to educate non-minority students.

Wakeford said that Swarthmore has thus far accepted Native students who have navigated Swarthmore without a large community on campus; however, Swarthmore “needs to transition from only having trailblazing students to having a more accepting community to Natives, and then bring in Natives that might need more of a community that might struggle a bit more.”

In terms of increased Native presence on campus, Wakeford said, “NASA is starting, but in classrooms it’s not touched on. If we’re an elite school preparing minds to change the world and to be leaders, if there’s no consideration that Natives exist, we have problems that need to be addressed.”

NASA will continue to plan events and continue these conversations. The next scheduled event for Native Heritage Month is a Thanksgiving Lecture tomorrow, November 21, by Bryn Mawr Associate Professor of History Ignacio Gallup-Díaz at 7p.m. in the Scheuer Room.

Featured image courtesy of Lewis and Clark University.

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