Canku Ota Logo
Canku Ota
Canku Ota Logo
(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
pictograph divider
University Of Montana Adjusts To Support Native American Students
by Keila Szpaller - Missoulian
Michelle Guzman, the new director of American Indian Student Services, is part of a shrinking team of support staff dedicated to Native American students, its largest minority population. "I'm going to have to work my butt off is what it means," said Guzman, who came to AISS from the Native American Studies department. (photo by Tommy Martino - Missoulian)

Michelle Guzman dances at powwows, and this summer, the University of Montana staff member has been running into Native American students who have been enrolled at the flagship.

Guzman, the new director of American Indian Student Services, takes full advantage of the encounters, at times far from Missoula, and relayed one recent example of an exchange:

"Hey. You didn't register for school. Where you been?"

"I'm going to have a baby, but I'm going to come back."

Those brief conversations with UM students aren't an official part of her job, but they do represent a sliver of the attention Guzman and others at UM give students.

This coming year, though, UM will have fewer support staff dedicated to Native American students, its largest minority population, even as the administration pledges a laser beam focus on the employees and structure necessary to boost overall retention rates and keep all students moving toward graduation.

Guzman knew from the moment she accepted the directorship — a job that had been dark until UM President Seth Bodnar gave the green light to fill it shortly after he started in January — that she would not have a budget to hire a program coordinator.

"I'm going to have to work my butt off is what it means," said Guzman, who came to AISS from the Native American Studies Department and has ideas for collaborations to fill gaps.

This year, UM also lost a federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant of $600,000 that funded the Native American Center of Excellence in the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, said former program coordinator Wilena Old Person. She said the College will fund one staff member instead of two, and it isn't clear if it will have funds to help with cultural awareness.

UM has been dealing with a budget crunch, and it's hard to point to a corner of the university that hasn't felt the squeeze from an enrollment drop. In Native American Studies, resources that fund both faculty and staff, including an adviser who helped Native students across campus, have decreased. Students also are seeing fewer course options in a semester.

Salena Hill, who is working on her doctorate at UM and has been affiliated with the campus since roughly 2002, said she knows UM leaders are doing their best, and it's a hard time to judge when the campus as a whole is hurting. She herself has returned to UM after working there and getting a master's degree.

"It's a good place. I've had nothing but positive experiences at the University of Montana," Hill said.

At the same time, she said she and other Native peers are worried for incoming students this fall. She believes students will find a social network, but she worries about whether the campus has adequate academic support.

"I think we're at a low point in regards to providing support for specifically our Native American students," Hill said.

pictograph divider

Enrollment has been a challenge at UM for several years, but at least from fall 2016 to 2017, both UM and Montana State University increased numbers of Native American students. UM had 4.3 percent more than the previous year at 561 students, and MSU enrolled 9.4 percent more at 712 students, according to census data from the campuses.

More recently at UM, the administration has been talking not only about enrollment, but about the importance of retention — not just bringing students on board, but keeping them on a path to a degree.

According to fall 2017 data from Main Hall, UM retained 69.2 percent of all of its first-time freshmen but only retained 51.6 percent of its American Indian freshman.

MSU fared better with American Indian students, retaining 77.8 percent.

Although some staff support for Native American students at UM has decreased, President Bodnar and his staff note they are designing a holistic approach to meet the needs of students, including Native American students.

For instance, Bodnar has restructured UM and has the provost overseeing not only academic affairs, but student affairs "for an integrated view of student success."

"This is something that (incoming Provost) Jon Harbor on day one is keenly focused on," Bodnar said.

Advising is a significant component of student success, he said, and UM is adding academic advisers in its largest college — staff who will serve all students. Chief of Staff Kelly Webster noted some support for Native American students is embedded within departments in addition to being offered through American Indian Student Services.

"We can't look at one pocket of support on campus. We have to look at the entire landscape of support across campus," Webster said.

The administration also aims to bring on board a high-level professional with a focus on diversity. Last semester, Bodnar tapped the brakes on the recruitment of a vice president of finance and administration after hearing about the need to better address diversity.

As designed, the vice president of finance and administration oversees human resources, among other areas, and the president said he's interested in a cabinet level leader who will see diversity "through the lens of people development."

"Who are the people that fall behind more often when there's not robust people development? It's often people from diverse backgrounds," Bodnar said.

He said he and his staff are still soliciting advice on how to best incorporate such a role. The president has moved quickly on a couple of executive hires, but he said he is proceeding deliberately in this case and anticipates he will be able to share more details "soon."

"This is not one I want to do hastily and get wrong. It's too important," Bodnar said.

pictograph divider

American Indian Student Services has a mission designed in part to increase the retention of Native students, and director Guzman said she's working with the rest of campus to bring services to the office. She also wants to make the place a cultural cornerstone.

"I think it's real important for our students to feel grounded and rooted culturally," she said.

The office is housed in the Payne Family Native American Center, and Guzman said she's committed to creating a welcoming place that feels like a home away from home. She said Native American students may feel a bit of culture shock being away from friends and family — even being away from familiar senses of humor and etiquette.

"When you're away from all that, you get really homesick for it," Guzman said.

To lend support to students despite her inability to hire a program coordinator, Guzman said she will be bringing in others on campus.

For instance, federally funded TRIO Student Support Services helps low-income students on campus with tutoring, career information and financial aid concerns. Guzman plans to invite staff from TRIO to be available at the Payne Center off and on, and she also plans to hire work-study students and have students help each other.

"I know I'm going to be working hard to make it good," Guzman said of support for students.

The director position had been open until Bodnar approved the hire, and he said Guzman will soon start gaining a sense of the most effective ways to help students. Already, though, he praised the peer mentoring strategy.

"Students are often the most effective support networks for their peers because they understand the challenges," Bodnar said.

pictograph divider

Faculty member Dave Beck, in Native American Studies, said UM has a long tradition of valuing Native communities, history and culture.

The academic adviser post is open in the department, and he said he isn't certain if it will be filled. That adviser — formerly Guzman — worked not only with students majoring and minoring in Native American Studies, but with Native American students across campus.

Beck also said faculty numbers in his department have gone from 7.5 full-time equivalents a few years ago to 2.5 FTEs with an outgoing chair, although the administration anticipates the chair position will be filled soon.

"We're still a rarity where the faculty who teach in Native American studies are appointed into Native American studies and not drawn from other departments," Beck said.

That means faculty can retain a focus on teaching and writing in their particular area, he said. He said that although recommendations from the administration tout the liberal arts, he worries departments in the humanities and social sciences might be relegated to general education courses rather than being "robust fields in themselves."

"I don't think our department is in danger of disappearing, but I think it is in danger of becoming a department where we provide services to other departments on campus through our courses, but then we don't stand as a strong field of our own," Beck said.

Last semester, the president released a draft reorganization plan that recommended faculty reductions in specific programs and some restructuring. The draft called for the creation of a "Division of Cultural, Environmental and Sustainability Studies" to include Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies; African American Studies; Native American Studies; Geography; Environmental Studies; and Philosophy.

Last week, Bodnar said Native American Studies will remain its own department, and the recommendation is aimed at creating "administrative efficiencies." He noted the department was not identified for cuts and was always meant to stay intact, even if within a new division.

"It's a hallmark program here. It's a great interdisciplinary program at the University of Montana, and it will continue to be," Bodnar said.

pictograph divider

Jordynn Paz, a junior studying journalism and Native American Studies, said the University of Montana should be a leader in supporting diversity. She said it has much to offer in its Native American Studies department and Payne Family Native American Center. Moreover, Montana has seven reservations. "That's more than many states have, and we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard,'' she said. "I think (the University of) Montana can easily be an example, a North Star to follow for other states.'' (photo by Tommy Martino - Missoulian)

Jordynn Paz, a junior studying journalism and Native American Studies, said UM can be a national leader for Native studies and students, but it has challenges.

For example, she estimated five of her Native peers didn't return to UM after their freshman year. As a freshman, she looked to American Indian Student Services as her "home away from home," and now, she and other Native leaders on campus are putting effort into bolstering it with peer mentoring and a reinvigorated Native student orientation next fall.

When Paz first came to UM, she may have had around 10 core courses to choose from in Native American Studies. Now, she said she and her peers are down to six or seven core courses, and she has to substitute classes in order to stay on track for graduation.

"It really puts students at a disadvantage because we're here to get an education with diverse classes, and the classes that we'd like to take aren't always there now," said Paz, from the Crow tribe.

Paz is on the Native American Student Advisory Council, a group from which the president has sought input, and she's also a senator with ASUM, the Associated Students of the University of Montana. She said she wants the administration to shift its focus on diversity, from seeking it to fostering the strengths that support it.

"Focus in on the things we do well in terms of diversity, and then, the diversity we want will follow," Paz said.

She said UM has "an amazing (Native American Studies) program and this amazing building," the Payne Family Native American Center. The campus is located in Missoula, a community that's open to new ideas; and it's in a state with seven reservations.

"That's more than many states have, and we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard,'' she said. "I think (the University of) Montana can easily be an example, a North Star to follow for other states.''

pictograph divider
Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us
Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us
pictograph divider
  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  
Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000 - 2018 of Vicki Williams Barry and Paul Barry.
Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo
The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the
Copyright © 1999 - 2018 of Paul C. Barry.
All Rights Reserved.

Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!