Connecting with Native American communities has long been a challenge for colleges, but Rochester Institute of Technology President Bill Destler has decided that the best way to make this link is in person.
Destler’s June visit to the Onondaga Nation Longhouse south of Syracuse promoted a sense of friendship that is already evident on the RIT campus — where Native American clubs and courses abound.
“It’s important to really understand the culture — how things are done,” said Samantha Burr, a Native American who graduated from RIT in the spring and attended the Destler-chiefs meeting.
Destler has also learned that connecting with Native Americans, both on campus and on the reservation, makes educational sense. RIT’s graduation rate for Native Americans — 93 percent for the past five years — is more than twice as high as the national average for Native Americans.
RIT’s outreach to Native Americans includes helping with the start-up of the Iroquois White Corn project at the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor — once the hub of Seneca Nation.
Still, the number of Native Americans enrolled at RIT and other local colleges is small. And Burr, 37, did not always find RIT welcoming. When she first enrolled there in the mid-1990s, she felt isolated — and dropped out.
The U.S. Department of Education put the total Native American enrollment at about 500 last school year for 12 Rochester area colleges, which had an overall enrollment of about 85,000. Because this 500 figure doesn’t include Native Americans who identify themselves as multiracial, the actual number of Native American descent is somewhat higher.
But the kind of outreach evident with RIT is more the exception than the rule. Other local colleges are making headway but not forging strong connections with Native American communities.
“More relationships with Native communities need to be built or strengthened,” said University of Rochester Native American student Chris Bethmann, 21, who as an intern in UR’s office of admissions is helping in recruiting.
Last Modified: 3:08pm 31 Aug 12