The 2013 graduates of Wyoming Indian High School. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)

University of Wyoming president reaches out to Wind River Indian Reservation

By Ron Feemster
— October 16, 2013

Just three months into his tenure as president of the University of Wyoming, Robert Sternberg visited the Wind River Indian Reservation on Tuesday to explore strategies for bringing the university closer to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.

UW President Robert Sternberg hopes that changes at the university will attract and retain more students from the Wind River tribes. (WyoFile/Ron Feemster — click to enlarge)

“I came to reach out and say that we want to partner with the reservation,” Sternberg said in an interview after an all-day meeting with leaders of the two tribes. “Native Americans are an important population in the state. They help people understand a different way of thinking. At a university you need to see how other people see things.”

Leaders of the two tribes, as well as Native students enrolled in Laramie, often see the state’s only four-year university as an unwelcoming destination. One tribal leader at the meeting on Tuesday said he knew of only a dozen students from the Wind River reservation who attend the university, a number that no one at the meeting challenged.

“UW is not student friendly for our students from a rural reservation environment,” said Sergio Maldonado, an instructor and the diversity coordinator at Central Wyoming College. Maldonado said reservation leaders made that point repeatedly at the meeting with Sternberg. “The community readily acknowledged that UW has failed to maintain a relationship that is not only retaining oriented but connecting oriented.”

Sternberg suggested actions that he hopes will make it easier for Wind River students to enter the university, and that will make the school a more supportive environment for them.

First among Sternberg’s changes is an innovation in the UW admission process, which the new president says is too closely tied to the ACT score. He believes standardized test scores do not adequately predict preparation for college. High school grades are better, but no perfect bellwether of success.

Sternberg, a graduate of Yale and Stanford, said his interest in assessing students goes back to his own childhood, when he flunked several IQ tests. As a young child, he blamed himself. As a researcher, he began to question the tests.

The university is adding a section to the admissions process that Sternberg hopes will identify qualities he considers more important to the university’s goal of training “ethical leaders.” In addition to submitting test scores and grades, students will write essay answers to counterfactual questions that measure creativity, critical thinking and “wisdom-based skills.”

In Riverton, Sternberg mentioned some possible essay topics: What would have happened if Rosa Parks had given up her seat on the bus? How would the world be different if the Nazis had won World War II? What would life be like without MTV?

Whether or not the new admissions procedures attract more students from Ethete and Fort Washakie, Sternberg says the school needs to make changes to better support Native and other students. Innovations range from a new support center for academic and non-academic needs to an emphasis on teaching strategies that take into account how a variety of students learn.

High Stakes

On the reservation, where about half the population is under the age of 25, leaders are concerned about educating a new generation of leaders. Tribal leaders see improved ties with the university as a key component in an effort to educate promising young people who can guide the reservation through the coming decades.

Gary Collins, Northern Arapaho liaison to the governor’s office, hopes UW will educate a future generation of reservation leaders. (WyoFile/Ron Feemster — click to enlarge)
Gary Collins, Northern Arapaho liaison to the governor’s office, hopes UW will educate a future generation of reservation leaders. (WyoFile/Ron Feemster — click to enlarge)

“We struggle to find natural resource specialists,” said Gary Collins, the Northern Arapaho liaison to the governor’s office. “Too many responsibilities that the tribes could take on if we had the right people default to the BIA.”

Collins points to the university’s Ruckelshaus Institute at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources as a potential pipeline for training Native students who could return to the reservation and take on the tribes’ environmental challenges.

“Our students would not be asking where to get a job with an environmental degree,” said Collins, who serves on the board of the Ruckelshaus Institute. “They go to the university, get the degree, and come back and get a job.”

In the meantime, attending a friendlier University of Wyoming would help students overcome some of the challenges that lead students to drop out of school.

“We know that strong ties to family bring people home to the reservation,” Collins said. But if the university is not sensitive to the students need to return, Collins said, students who return home for family funerals or other emergencies might grow frustrated and drop out without completing the degree. “The tribes and the students bear a responsibility in this area, but if that sensitivity is not recognized by the university, it can be harder to keep students in school.”

Sternberg also told tribal leaders that he wants to strengthen ties to the Wind River Tribal College, which trains teachers in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh after the University of Wyoming declined to participate in a U.S. Department of Education grant won by the tribal college.

“We think it’s very important that he came here to visit us,” said Marlin Spoonhunter, president of the tribal college, who attended the meeting with Sternberg. “We hope to work together in the near future.”

Every reservation leader at the meeting seemed to take hope from Sternberg’s proposal to continue meeting twice a year with the tribes, once on the reservation and once in Laramie.

“He emphasized communication,” said Rep. Patrick Goggles (R-Ethete). “We need closer ties, not just between the university and tribal leadership, but in other areas, such as how the university is recruiting students from Wind River. We need to help them recruit not only at the high school level but at lower grade levels and at CWC.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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