New campus community helps Native American students “reconnect with the culture”

The new Native American scholars learning community culturally engages American Indian students through lectures, classes and experiential activities.

The learning community, initiated this semester by the Fresno State’s Native American Staff Association, consists of five courses and currently has 22 members.

Members of the association teach a number of the courses.

“This is the first one at Fresno State that’s ever focused on American Indian students, and as far as I know, any particular ethnicity,” said Dr. Kenneth Hansen, a political science professor who teaches American Indian Studies.

Dr. Charles Ettner, American Indian studies coordinator, said the association is a place where faculty can come together and not only have some camaraderie but also a place to discuss class development, consult on difficulties they are experiencing and to develop outreach opportunities for indigenous students.

There are a number of service learning opportunities that are related to the learning community, including Saturdays when Ettner’s American Indian studies class goes up to the Sierra National Forest with the North Fork Mono Tribe to help with meadow restoration.

Students are also involved in processing acorns in the courtyard of the Peters Business Building. This was brought over from the foothills onto the campus to allow to engage in traditional practices.

Hansen said the purpose is to help students reconnect with the culture since many were removed from tribes and don’t engage in traditional practices anymore.

“They are going to be doing the same classes as anybody else, but they sit together in those classes – they learn together,” Ettner said. “We look at them carefully to see if there are signs of difficulty with regards to acculturating into the environment.”

All this is done in a way that is tied to the curriculum.

“You take the Native American scholars learning community courses, and there’s a cultural element to it that you don’t find in other types of endeavors on campus,” Hansen said.

Hansen believes the learning community is necessary because Fresno State is an intimidating place for Native American students.

The native community consulted with President Joseph Castro when he first came in as president, telling him Fresno State could be a friendlier place for American Indian students.

As a result, an initiative was started to recruit more students. With the help of Katie Garcia, the outreach counselor for the American Indian recruitment and retention initiative, more than 120 new Native American students have been recruited.

“You need sort of a critical mass of people to establish a community, and so a group of students is never going to replace somebody’s family, but it can make you feel more comfortable to be around people who are like you,” Hansen added.

Ettner said the Native American Faculty and Staff Association has also started an American Indian graduation ceremony where students are awarded a Pendleton blanket.

There have been two such graduations which took place at Woodward Park the last couple years.

Castro has invited the staff association to arrange the third graduation, which will take place in May, at the Smittcamp Alumni House.

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