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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Two Feathers Fledgling Step For Native Engineering Grads
by Mary Garrigan, Rapid City(SD) Journal staff
credits: photo by Seth A. McConnell Rapid City (SD) journal staff}

School of Mines' ceremony celebrates expanding multi-cultural alumni ranks.

An eagle plume hung from Myrna Littlewolf's braids Friday as friends and family gathered to honor the young Native American woman's accomplishments in earning an industrial engineering degree today during the 159th commencement at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

Friday's feathering ceremony honored Littlewolf and Quana Higgins, an Oglala Lakota civil engineering student and the only other Native American to graduate from Mines today.

Scott Wiley, director of Mines' Office of Multicultural Affairs, said the ceremony also played a small part in helping accomplish OMA's mission -- which is the recruitment, retention and graduation of more Native American students like Littlewolf and Higgins.

Welcoming people to the feathering ceremony, Mines President Robert Wharton said an eagle feather is given to "acknowledge the great heights to which the person has flown." Minority students give the Rapid City campus "a broader global lens," Wharton said. Given its enrollment of foreign students, Mines is one of the most racially diverse places in Rapid City. About 12 percent of the school's student body is made up of people of color when students who are citizens of other countries are included in the tally, Wiley said. That number drops to 6 percent, however, when only minorities who are either U.S. citizens or permanent residents are counted.

At the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, Mines enrolled 97 students who self-identified as minorities: 40 were Native Americans; 20 Hispanics; 21 Asians; 11 blacks and several of other races.

But Mines, like all science and engineering schools, faces many obstacles in increasing the number of Native Americans who enroll there. Only 2 percent of Mines' student body is Native American, even though Natives make up about 12 percent of the area's population, according to the U.S. Census. Even fewer make it to graduation day.

Native American students "are dramatically underrepresented on our campus, but we are taking dramatic steps to try to improve that," said Carter Kerk, a professor in the industrial engineering department. Kerk has been instrumental in developing the Tiospaye in Engineering scholarships -- 15 four-year, $8,000 annual scholarships for Native students that are funded through a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

The school has an active chapter of American Indian Science and Engineering Students, as well as other programs that do outreach to Native elementary and high school students.

The OMA also hosts multicultural activities, including Friday's feathering ceremony, in an attempt to accomplish Mines' mission to "achieve and maintain national prominence for the recruitment, retention and graduation of American Indians seeking mathematics, science and engineering at the graduate and undergraduate levels while respecting their heritage."

That's an ambitious goal, Wiley knows.

Mines already does a better job of attracting Native Americans than the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields as a whole do, he said.

Nationwide, Native Americans constitute less than one-half of 1 percent of workers in those areas.

"Native Americans are far underrepresented in the STEM fields, so we want to do all we can to help level the playing field in those areas," Wiley said. "Science and engineering has been a field that minorities haven't ventured into as much. We, and a lot of other schools, are trying to change that picture."

The two-fold approach involves student support and academic support. Mentors advocate by creating peer groups and solving personal problems to increase retention rates. Academic support is built into the curriculum in the form of collaborative learning environments that find tutors, mentors and study skills for students who need them.

"If a student comes to campus and doesn't get tied into student groups or mentors, then it can become bewildering ... to manage all the demands," Wiley said.

Quana Higgins and Myrna Littlewolf took advantage of those support systems to make it to graduation day, Wiley said.

"They're smart students who could handle the rigorous academics," he said, "but they've drawn upon the support systems that were available to them here, and they worked hard to take advantage of them."

Black Hills State University celebrated its 25th Feast and Feathers celebration April 30 to honor Native American graduates as well as graduates in its American Indian Studies program. BHSU holds its commencement exercises today.

In the fall of 2008, there were 158 Native Americans enrolled at Black Hills State University, which typically leads the South Dakota university system in minority student enrollments, according to Jace DeCory of the Center for American Indian Studies at BHSU. During the 2008-09 school year, Native students constituted about 4 percent of the student body.

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