By Julia Piper

Shelly C. Lowe (right) with Harvard U. Native American Program staff members

Even at universities whose founding charters mention the education of American Indians among their defining goals, the commitment to recruiting Native students and understanding the challenges they face when they arrive on campus has been inconsistent.

Several colleges, among them Ivy League institutions and colleges near reservations, have positions devoted to serving Native American students, and more colleges are seeking workers to fill such positions.

In the fall of 2016, American Indians made up 0.8 percent of all college students in the United States, about the same as their representation in the U.S. population, but they are underrepresented at four-year public and private nonprofit institutions, and their enrollment numbers have been dropping lately.

Shelly C. Lowe, executive director of Harvard University’s Native American Program, notes that the Harvard Charter of 1650 specifies that the university’s purpose is “the education of English and Indian youth.”

“Ever since the arrival of non-natives into this country there’s been this goal to provide education to Natives,” says Lowe, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation who was an assistant dean and director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale University before she joined Harvard more than nine years ago.

Not until 1970 did Harvard establish what was then called the American Indian Program. One of the program’s early goals was to prepare Native Americans to return to their communities as teachers.

Lowe’s work involves supporting American Indian students and raising awareness among staff and faculty members. She works with other programs on campus to co-sponsor events, the largest of which is the student-run annual powwow. “We still live in an area where people think we’re gone, that we don’t exist anymore. And we’re constantly trying to fight that stereotype.”

Lowe has built relationships with tribal high schools, communities, and colleges. Universities that partner with tribal colleges are “really forward thinking,” she says, and she is especially proud of Harvard’s partnership with the American Indian College Fund’s American Indian Law School Scholarship, which gives selected Indigenous students full funding for Harvard Law School.

“The government has treaties to provide Natives with education, but what we’ve seen is a lot of programs and universities haven’t really thought about what are the best ways to do that. Those universities that have, and have hopefully really thought about it in more culturally appropriate ways, have created positions like this,” says Lowe.

Another Ivy League institution with a position devoted to American Indians is Dartmouth College. Sarah Palacios, a former director of alumni relations at St. John’s College, in Maryland and New Mexico, and an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, became director of the Native American Program at Dartmouth last summer. Dartmouth was founded with the intention of providing education to Native students, and it, like Harvard, recommitted to that goal in the 1970s.

Dartmouth had 109 American Indian students in the fall of 2016, the most in the Ivy League. Palacios says those students often have to fight to be visible. “The lack of contemporary, relevant, and positive social representations of Native and Indigenous people in the media means that many people do not recognize Native and Indigenous people unless they are in traditional clothing.”

Native students may not have access to “education systems that adequately prepare them for various elements of the college experience,” says Palacios. At Dartmouth they face the “challenge of being removed from traditions, culture, family, tribal community,” she says, and benefit from the support of an office and administrator focused on their needs.

In California, which has 109 federally recognized American Indian tribes but no accredited tribal colleges, Celeste Townsend, founding interim president of California Indian Nations College, is hoping to build the relationship between her new intertribal college and other institutions in the region. Townsend, who was a financial and budget officer at the University of California at Riverside and a business manager at a high school for Native Americans, wants to make the often unfamiliar culture of higher education more accessible for Native students.

Since stepping into her job in March, Townsend has overseen the initial wave of hires for the new two-year public college and a first semester that saw the enrollment of 40 students ages 17 to 62. The goal to create an intertribal college came out of discussions at the Riverside campus, whose Palm Desert center is the new college’s temporary home. Officials concluded that “this was a community that needed to be nurtured, just like other minority communities,” she says.

Another public institution, Eastern Oregon University plans to hire a coordinator of student diversity, inclusion, and Native American programs. Bennie Moses-Mesubed, director of the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion, says the university wants someone “who can help build our Native American student community, support them, and really enhance and ensure their success on campus.” Other colleges seeking assistant directors for their Native American programs are Pomona College and the University of Minnesota at Morris.

Not every university has the same history with Native American students that Harvard does, and Lowe knows that Harvard’s name recognition means a higher profile for its Native American Program. “I would like to say that all colleges should have this position, but being a realist I know that the funding isn’t always there and often they have to have an outside person bring it up. Institutions don’t often think about their Native students or local tribal populations.”

Julia Piper, an editorial associate, compiles Gazette and writes the Hiring Trends column. Email her at

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