Increasing representation and resources for Native and Indigenous students at UConn

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If you have ever attended a UConn-sponsored event, you have most likely heard the Land Acknowledgment being read. While this is a great step in recognizing the land the University exists upon, more work needs to be done to ensure this statement is not an empty gesture. When it comes to the opportunities and resources available to students in higher education, Native and Indigenous youth are often left out of the conversation. Their needs are overlooked, and institutions do not dedicate enough money or effort to create spaces where they feel represented and have their concerns validated. 

“Native and Indigenous youth are not at this university because of a lack of acknowledgment and a lack of recognition of the lands that it stands upon,” Sage Phillips, a sixth-semester political science and human rights major, said. “By which I mean we have a land acknowledgment…. but that doesn’t go across the whole university.”  

The Native American Cultural Programs (NACP) and the Native American and Indigenous Students Association (NAISA) are two vital aspects of the UConn community and provide prospective and current Native and Indigenous students with a community-oriented space where they can freely express their identity. 

“That’s why I’m here, to build a community,” Phillips said. “I know how crucial that is.” 

When Phillips arrived on UConn’s campus during her freshman year, she said she did not feel there was enough representation for Native and Indigenous youth to express or reclaim their identities. Not all students identify as Native American, so she founded NAISA to create a more inclusive community. She now serves as the president of NAISA and a student coordinator for NACP. During her time with both organizations, she has led many important efforts like installing artwork to educate people about the effects of colonization, collaborating with other UConn student organizations to hold events and inviting a suicide counselor to talk to students. 

“We’re really trying to focus on mental health for Native and Indigenous communities,” Phillips said. 

“We’re really trying to focus on mental health for Native and Indigenous communities,” Phillips said.  

Phillips shared how Native and Indigenous youth have some of the highest suicide rates and more emphasis and resources need to be dedicated to mental health promotion for this segment of the student population. A study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics found the largest increase in suicide rates between 1999 and 2017 was an astonishing 139% and occurred among American Indian or Alaska Native females. 

Mental health is one of many struggles for Native and Indigenous communities. They are also subject to high rates of unemployment; high rates of violence, especially toward women; and natural resource exploitation. This is why calls for increased funding and resources for organizations like NACP and NAISA are urgent and necessary to create more programs to educate people about the harmful effects of colonization and the hardships these communities are dealing with daily. 

Non-natives can play an important role in spreading awareness about these struggles by uplifting the voices of Native and Indigenous communities through listening to their demands and helping in whatever ways they can.   

“I’m not Native or Indigenous and I didn’t want my presence to be silencing,” Zoe Blevins, the vice president of NAISA and a student staff member of NACP, said. “So I think if you are going to work across cultures and connect with other people it all really boils down to just listening to them.” 

Blevins warned against non-Native people becoming involved for the wrong reasons; however, she encouraged people who have good intentions to reach out to the community and learn what steps they can take. In Blevin’s case, this activism came in the form of applying for a grant with Jane Gordon, a professor of political science at UConn. After taking Professor Gordon’s class on settler colonialism and Indigenous thought and politics, Blevins applied for and was awarded the President’s Commitment to Community Initiative which is focused on making UConn a more diverse and inclusive space by fostering respect and understating among the UConn community. 

Blevins learned how important exchange programs were during her time living abroad in Switzerland during high school, so she decided to focus her grant proposal on creating a mentorship exchange program with the ultimate goal of allowing participants to gain a cross-cultural perspective

Blevins learned how important exchange programs were during her time living abroad in Switzerland during high school, so she decided to focus her grant proposal on creating a mentorship exchange program with the ultimate goal of allowing participants to gain a cross-cultural perspective. The program, which is called the UConn Indigenous Nations Cultural and Educational Exchange (UCINCEE), welcomed its inaugural cohort of mentors this year. 

The original plan was to train a group of undergraduate mentors to go to a reservation to do community-building activities and bring a group of youth to UConn for an early college program. Due to COVID-19, the program had to be transitioned online, but they are still keeping in close contact with the Nipmuck and Mashantucket Pequot nations. 

“We’re building community and providing opportunities for youth, and hopefully getting the youth here for the summer program starting next year,” Blevins said.  

“These are just a couple of ways that we can show current Native and Indigenous students that they belong, and they have a place that they can identify with, especially the learning community,” Phillips said. “It’s really valuable in a communal sense to be able to gather and be together.” 

UCINCEE is one of many initiatives the staff at NACP and NAISA are creating to indigenize UConn. Next semester, they are launching the non-residential Native/Indigenous Scholars Learning Community to give students the ability to explore what it means to be Native and Indigenous through readings and timely discussions that help students transition to the college setting and create a tight-knit community. Kaylee Jangula Mootz, NACP’s graduate supervisor, will be teaching the UNIV 1810 course and Sofia Saul will serve as the mentor of the learning community class. 

This sense of community is a defining feature of NACP and NAISA, as both organizations are closely intertwined and many of the students and staff hold positions in both programs. Moving forward, Phillips and Blevins hope the strong bonds they have created will serve as a solid foundation for continued future progress. 

The work Phillips, Blevins and the other students and staff of NACP and NAISA are doing is working toward the ultimate goal of indigenizing UConn and making it a place that welcomes and celebrates Native and Indigenous students and their cultures. This work is rewarding, however, it requires a lot of time and effort, and, once Phillips and Blevins graduate, they want more students to follow in their footsteps to continue advocating for the Native and Indigenous student population on UConn’s campus. 

“It’s a lot of work and it’s work that is only going to be sustained by that long-term support, that long-term continued commitment, to invest in Native and Indigenous students and Native and Indigenous communities in the state of Connecticut,” Blevins said.  

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