Bemidji State University will bring four elders from the northern Minnesota region’s American Indian communities to campus as part of an Elders-in-Residence program.
The innovative retention and diversity initiative, led by BSU’s American Indian Resource Center and slated to begin this fall, is intended to help the university’s Indian students overcome cultural disassociation, which research indicates is a barrier to success in higher education.
“The American Indian retention rate is more than an issue of education,” said Dr. Anton Treuer, the center’s executive director. “It is, without exaggeration, an issue of human rights and equality. This program will help bridge our students from their home cultural environment into a culturally supported learning environment.
“Cultural disassociation is one of the proven barriers to retention—people feeling like they don’t fit in, like people don’t understand them, and that they’re not supported,” he said. “Hopefully this program will address that and help people stay in school. That will be a win for those students, it will be a win for this program and it will be a win for the institution.”
Under the program, BSU will hire four Elders-in-Residence who will be placed on campus in short-term residencies or on a commuter basis, depending on the elder’s needs, and have those elders participate in public events and training activities both on campus and in the Bemidji community. In addition, the elders will mentor BSU’s Indian students on their own culture and support them in their educational and student lives, and also will participate in research so their knowledge of tribal culture can be documented and used to support the program moving forward.
Treuer said the program will help develop a more-inclusive learning and social environment at the university; help BSU’s Indian students overcome cultural disassociation; develop the capacity of BSU’s faculty, staff, students and administrators to better understand and engage with the university’s Native students; provide a free learning environment for Minnesotans to engage with and learn from tribal elders; and strengthen BSU’s relationship with the region’s Indian communities.
“This program is a natural fit for Bemidji State University,” Treuer said. “BSU created the first Indian studies program in Minnesota, the first collegiate Ojibwe language program in the world, and four of Minnesota’s 11 current top tribal executives are BSU alumni. That work and experience has left the staff at BSU well-acquainted with the strengths and struggles in Indian country today.”
Bemidji State’s Elders-in-Residence initiative is funded by grants from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.