Montana State University doesn’t just actively recruit American Indian students to Bozeman.
It also works to make certain students will do well once they arrive.
When an Indian student comes to MSU and fails, the university has to do more than blame reservation schools, said Walter Fleming, head of the MSU Native American Studies Department.
“We can’t pass it off to someone else,” he said.
Among programs helping students before they come to MSU is the Big Sky Science Partnership. It trains teachers on and near the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in the inquiry method of science education that uses experiments and field research. The program uses a combination of regular and online classes on the reservation and in Bozeman taught by MSU staff.
This fall, MSU has 545 Native American students, 45 more than last year, said Chris Fastnow, MSU associate director of the office of planning and analysis.
That’s nearly 4 percent of the student body of 14,153.
That’s a big jump from 15 years ago when 170 American Indians attended, said Jim Burns, an MSU American Indian student adviser and counselor.
The increase is the result of a focused effort to bring more American Indians to campus, Burns said.
Those programs include:
Rockin’ the Rez, which sends MSU representatives to Montana and Wyoming reservations to talk with students in tribal colleges, high schools and lower grades about the Bozeman campus.
Personalized campus tours for tribal college and high school students from Indian communities.
Specialized efforts to attract native students to programs such as nursing, engineering, sciences and math.
Once students enroll, MSU offers tutoring, leadership classes and a freshman writing class specifically for Native American students.
Native Pathway to Success is a two-day orientation for parents and students to answer questions about financial aid and other issues.
MSU also has several scholarship programs for Native American students, including one through the College of Engineering for incoming freshmen.
MSU has an American Indian student center that is “a home away from home,” Burns said. Students can drop in to get help filling out financial aid forms or attend discussion and study groups.
Burns, an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, grew up in Lame Deer. After graduating from St. Labre in 1979, he came to MSU, but dropped out after not doing well.
He realizes now he wasn’t quite ready for college.
When he returned a few years later, he was more mature and ready to hit the books.
“You have to be hungry” for an education, he said.
The second time around, he also wasn’t just studying for himself, but for his family, community and future generations.
He would earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
The University of Montana in Missoula took a big step in strengthening its American Indian program last year when it opened the $8.6 million Payne Family Native American Center on campus.
Funded almost entirely by private donations, the building has innovative architecture inspired, in part, by Salish tepees that once sat where the campus is now.
The center brings UM’s American Indian programs under one roof, including the Native American Studies Department, offices for student services and space for students to study and visit together, said Fredricka Hunter, director of the American Indian Student Services.
Officially, UM this fall has 589 American Indian students, about 4 percent of total enrollment. But the true number may be closer to 600 because some native students don’t identify themselves as such on university forms, Hunter said.
Because only 40 percent of American Indian freshmen return the next year compared to 70 percent of all UM students, the university is working on several programs to improve retention.
A new program, Native American Learning Community, was designed to connect freshman and transfer students with the campus and other students so they would be more likely to finish their degrees in Missoula. Students in the program take a common class and participate in other activities together, Hunter said.
Another event, Soup Fridays, draws both native and non-native students to meet with administrators and local business people over lunch.
This fall, UM President Royce Engstrom and others from UM are touring tribal colleges to build relationships.
UM has 2-plus-2 programs where tribal college students take their first two years at home and then transfer to UM.