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Feature

UMM student Johanna Farmer.

Johanna Farmer is one of 150 Native American students on the Morris campus.

Dedicated to the Native American

By Bob San and Judy Riley

From eNews, April 21, 2005

Four years ago, Lisa Rainbow came to the University of Minnesota, Morris, (UMM) because of its strong academic program. This spring, she is graduating. And, she says, she couldn't have done it without UMM's American Indian Tuition Waiver.

"I came [to UMM] with my belongings and no money, [but] the tuition waiver program saved me because my family is unable to support me financially," says Rainbow, a sociology major and member of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota.

The history of the UMM American Indian Tuition Waiver is rooted to the campus grounds. In 1887, the Sisters of Mercy (an order of the Roman Catholic Church) established the American Indian Boarding School on the site that is now the Morris campus.

"The boarding school was part of a government effort to mainstream Indian children," explains UMM chancellor Sam Schuman. "The Sisters of Mercy surely thought they were doing a good and useful thing, but from today's perspective, the off-reservation boarding schools were not a good idea. They were a place that took kids out of their families, out of their communities, and imposed upon them most of the conventions of the majority culture. [The students] weren't allowed to speak their own language; they were dressed up like white, middle-class workers."

However, the nation's Indian boarding schools began closing by the early 1900s, says Schuman. At about the same time, the Sisters of Mercy turned over their school--its land and buildings--to the federal government.

"The nuns had one requirement in the transaction," says Schuman. "No matter what institution was built on the land, American Indian students would be given an education there for free. It was a condition the federal government accepted."

UMM has honored this promise since its founding in 1960, waiving tuition for American Indian students it admits. To be eligible for the tuition waiver, students must meet UMM admissions requirements and show documented proof of their American Indian heritage or ancestry. Applicants are not required to be residents of Minnesota.

"I think a key aspect is that UMM is dedicated to teaching about Native Americans. We, as Native students, are not alone in trying to be educated," says Farmer.

The impact of the tuition waiver program has been positive. American Indian students make up 7.2 percent of the UMM student population, compared to just 1 percent of undergraduate students nationally. They are the largest student-of-color population on campus, comprising 7 percent of the nearly 2,000 students enrolled.

American Indian students who attend UMM are also graduating at higher rates. According to the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office, only 29 percent of American Indian students who entered Minnesota's four-year colleges and universities in 1994 graduated in six years. For the same cohort at UMM, 53 percent graduated in six years, and an additional 5 percent graduated from another college within the University of Minnesota system.

Johanna Farmer is another student who credits the tuition waiver for much of her success. A Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, Farmer is graduating in four years with a degree in Native American studies.

"The tuition waiver made college affordable," says Farmer. "It allowed me to stay at Morris, and do all the incredible things UMM has to offer." Farmer has been able to hold two internships, study abroad, participate in UMM campus activities, and serve two years as the UMM student representative to the U's Board of Regents.

"[The tuition waiver] is critical as most Native students come from a lower socio-economic status and may not otherwise be able to afford to go to a four-year university," says Julie Pelletier, UMM assistant professor of anthropology. "It also expresses a sense of welcome to Native students to know that they are considered a valuable part of the campus community."

"UMM is dedicated to Native Americans in more ways than just the tuition waiver," says Farmer. "I think a key aspect is that UMM is dedicated to teaching about Native Americans. We, as Native students, are not alone in trying to be educated."

In addition to the waiver, UMM offers two other programs geared toward Native students--the Multi-Ethnic Student Program and the student-led Circle of Nations Indian Association.

The tuition waiver program costs UMM nearly $1 million per year--the cost to cover tuition for 150 American Indian students. Schuman is actively seeking funding support for this unfunded mandate from the federal government. And he pledges that UMM will continue to honor the tuition waiver.

"It's a significant fiscal burden, but it's the right thing to do and we are not going to stop doing it," he says. "Native American students are a vital part of the UMM community."

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