The University of Wyoming is putting special effort into recruiting Native American students — the ethnic demographic university officials say is most underrepresented in higher education.

To do this, UW President Laurie Nichols started several initiatives throughout her first year at the university, aimed at reaching out to, empowering and recruiting Native American high school students across the state.

The Native American Summer Institute, ending today, is one of these initiatives, said James Trosper, director of UW’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute.

“Right now, we’re probably at an all-time low as far as Native American student enrollment,” Trosper said. “But now, with the initiatives that President (Laurie) Nichols has put into place, we’re starting to see that turn around. In the first year that she’s been here — she’s been here for a year now — we’ve already seen an increase in our applications for scholarships.”

The summer institute invited Native American students from the Wind River Indian Reservation and elsewhere in Wyoming to tour the campus, connect with campus resources and attend academic workshops from various colleges and departments across campus.

“We wanted to get a broad spectrum of what opportunities are at the University of Wyoming,” he said. “We’re hoping that the students will be able to find something in their areas of interest and want to come to (UW) to get their degree.”

The 34 visiting students had a packed schedule, with tours of athletic facilities and the UW Art Museum, outdoor recreation at Curt Gowdy State Park and plenty of cultural and artistic fun — including a presentation by Eagle Spirit Dancers, Snowy Range Summer Theater’s production of “The Fantasticks” and a performance by Native American entertainer Jackie Bird.

They also attended workshops with representatives from the College of Health Sciences, the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, the College of Agriculture and other programs from across campus.

“We really want to give students at the high school level an opportunity to be able to come to the university and experience college life,” Trosper said. “So, they can start planning and be more familiar with the university and with the campus so when they do come here, they feel more comfortable.”

Native American enrollment at the University of Wyoming has fluctuated as recruitment efforts have come and gone. An Indian Education Office established under UW President Terry Roark and headed by then Vice President for Student Affairs Jim Hurst did a good job recruiting these hard-to-reach students, but when they and the office went away, so did the students, said Trosper.

Soon after, UW started the Chief Washakie Memorial Scholarship and created a new position in the Office of Multicultural Affairs for recruitment and retention of Native American students.

“When that person was in place, even though our numbers were lower than they were in the early ‘90s, we were still seeing a good number of applications coming in,” Trosper said. “When they did away with that position, we saw a decline in applications.”

President Nichols’ husband, Tim, served as a volunteer coordinator for the summer institute. He previously worked on tribal outreach efforts at the South Dakota State University.

“Traditionally, not just at the University of Wyoming, but across the country, American Indians are underrepresented in higher education and, in fact, (are) the most underrepresented ethnic group,” he said. “And so, traditional approaches to recruitment don’t work as well with this audience.”

By introducing Native American high school students to their college-bound peers and by connecting those high school students to Native Americans already attending UW, the summer institute helps to build a sense of community and starts to overcome those traditional barriers to entry, Tim Nichols said.

“And of course, as the state university, part of our mission is to serve all the citizens of the state,” he said. “This is a program that’s especially designed to help serve that community.”

The summer institute is just one of many initiatives designed to boost Native American enrollment. In addition to the institute, UW is establishing a center for Native Americans on campus to further the sense of community.

President Nichols also reached out to residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation, Trosper said.

“Every single time that she’s gone up to the reservation, she’s taken the time to meet with the tribal councils,” he said. “She’s been to all of the reservation schools and met with the superintendents and administrators at each of the schools.”

Trosper and Tim Nichols said they have already begun to see positive results, such as more applicants for the Chief Washakie Memorial Scholarship. Trosper said enrollment numbers are not clear yet.

“For many of them, this is their first taste of a college experience and their first sort of opportunity to begin this process,” Tim Nichols said. “I think it’s been a real positive experience for the students. They’re certainly meeting people. They’re certainly learning a lot. And they’re also having a lot of fun this week, so that’s been encouraging.”

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