Native Village Youth and Education News

April 1, 2009 Issue 196 Volume 2

Ties that bind: Native American students come together, share struggle to fit in
By Erinn Connor
Condensed by Native Village

 New York: Whitney Brooks grew up with her extended family on New York's Seneca Indian Reservation where everyone shares a strong sense of community and family. When Whitney left home for Syracuse University, she lost that sense of community, even though Syracuse is only three hours from home. 

While forming bonds with many students hasn't been easy, her ties with fellow Native American students have grown deeper.

"Having other Native students here helps a lot, knowing we're not alone," said Brooks, a sophomore nutrition major. "There were a lot of Natives who went through college alone, and we have other people."

This year marks the 3rd anniversary of the Haudenosaunee Promise scholarship. HPS offers full financial assistance to citizens of the Haudenosaune nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. There is no limit to the number of scholarships awarded each year. Students must be enrolled full time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

Syracuse University itself is located on Onondaga territory.

Promise Scholarships have enabled more Native American students to attend Syracuse. The 2005-2006 school year saw 46 enrolled American Indian and Alaska Native undergraduate students. The next year, undergraduate enrollment jumped to 81. Current enrollment is 118 undergraduate AI/AN students.

Still, those 118 students are only 0.9% of the entire undergraduate population. Nate Rivera, Seneca, said fitting in and relating to other students is difficult and can make campus  life challenging.

"We come here, and it's hard to fit in and relate because people don't know what you've been through," said Rivera, a freshman in the College of Human Ecology. "There's a lot of ignorance."

Brooks understands. Community is what Native students treasure the most, miss the most from home, and value the most while at school. 

"When I first got here, I had a little more hope in things like, I'll meet new people and have new experiences," Brooks said. "But now I'm at the point where I haven't met that many people, and it's discouraging when you talk to people who are different than you and just get ignored."

Syracuse's Native Student Program has helped heal the pain. It's run by Regina Jones who helps Native students when they're feeling disconnected with campus life. "Their value systems, priorities and beliefs are very different form the broader community," said Jones, a member of the Oneida Nation. "I've been trying to help them be solid in the foundation of who they are."

Senior Shavon Thomas is an anthropology and Native American studies major. He calls Jones their "Native mother" away from home. "I consider the other Native students my distant cousins. We all know each other pretty well," said Thomas, a member of the Mohawk Nation. "I have created tighter bonds with the other Mohawk students because we usually travel together."

Philip Arnold teaches courses relating to Native Americans. He's seen how difficult it is for students to adjust. "They come from very insulated communities with a lot of stresses that other people don't know about," said Arnold.

But his Native American students have also improved other students' learning experience.  Arnold said many seem to like being able to educate others. It's a way to combat the ignorance.

Students understand they must accept this educational opportunity to take back home to help their families and communities. Rivera, however, would choose another school were it not for the Promise Scholarship. "If I wasn't getting my education paid for, I wouldn't be here," Rivera said. "I wouldn't put up with it."

"A lot of people ask me, 'What are you?' and I want to say 'A human being,'" Brooks said. "The ignorance is a big social roadblock for us. There's so many strong attached stereotypes. But I just focus on why I'm here, the opportunity I have."

While the number of Native students is still small compared to campus groups, their common bonds makes things easier.

"When we're at the Native house hanging out, it's like an automatic sense of community with other Native students," Brooks said. "And back home, there's a deep appreciation for one of us that can make it, there's a lot of support - it's a big deal that we go here."


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