Emerson lags behind in indigenous enrollment

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Photo: Diana Bravo

American Indian activist Chali’Naru Dones speaking to a crowd of protesters in Boston on Indigenous People’s Day, 2020.

By Bailey Allen, Deputy Enterprise Editor

Boston celebrated its first official Indigenous People’s Day on Monday after a decree from Acting Mayor Kim Janey—yet at Emerson, the holiday was underscored by the fact that the college’s indigenous population remains minimal.

Janey’s Oct. 6 declaration reversed the celebration of Columbus Day, which has been criticized in recent years for its namesake’s association with colonialism and indigenous genocide. In light of the newly recognized holiday, Emerson’s Social Justice Center sent out a campus-wide email acknowledging the day’s significance as well as promoting several ongoing social justice movements, such as the NDN Collective and the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness.

As the College honors Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we acknowledge the ongoing movements for justice many Indigenous communities work for every day of the year,” the email read. “We wish to share resources and information from the powerful ongoing presence and joy of Indigenous people.”

Despite this rhetoric, Emerson’s indigenous population remains low, even compared to the national average. According to the most recent numbers available on the college’s website, American Indians and Alaska Natives made up only 0.2 percent of Emerson’s fall 2020 enrollment—in other words, about ten students out of the college’s population of 5,102. Of those ten students, only three were enrolled as undergraduates.

The college did not enroll any new, first-year students of American Indian heritage in the fall of 2020.

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Emerson’s proportion of indigenous students is lower than other Boston-area institutions, but just barely—the percentage at Harvard University, for example, is 1.1 percent. However, it contributes to a broader trend in higher education; American Indians make up only 0.7 percent of college students enrolled in the U.S., despite being 2.9 percent of the population.

Emerson is working to reach out to prospective students from traditionally underserved communities, Vice President of Enrollment Ruthanne Madsen said in a statement.

“The Enrollment Management division is working diligently to increase the diversity of our student body,” she wrote. “This means diversity in all ways. We continue to work to support the financial funding necessary to effectively recruit and successfully matriculate important populations that aid in our understanding of various cultures and backgrounds.”

Madsen referred The Beacon to the Social Justice Center’s Oct. 11 email for further explanation on this matter. 

“I am very proud of the work that the Social Justice Center does in support of our students, staff, and faculty and I am thankful for their acknowledgment on behalf of the College,” she wrote.

Dina Hordewel, who serves as director of public education at the American Indian College Fund, attributed the dearth of Native American students on campus to structural barriers limiting options for accessing secondary education.

The education disparity and poverty is shocking when you consider the number of AIAN [American Indian and Alaska Native] people in the United States—8.1 million,” she wrote in an email statement to The Beacon.

“Today, many institutions limit their recruitment to readily accessible populations or ignore Native populations entirely,” according to the AICF’s declaration of Native purpose in higher education. “[A way to make college education more equitable for Native populations is to] remove obstacles to enrollment, such as financial aid, discriminatory admissions criteria, or elimination based on test scores which are proven to not be the predictor of success for Native American students.”

Hordewel pointed out that only 14.5 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives age 25 and older have a college degree—less than half of that of other groups (31.5 percent), according to the U.S. Census.

“The pandemic illustrated and exacerbated the fault lines of inequity in Native communities,” she wrote. “Many tribes [have] put entire reservations on lockdown for the majority of the past nine months due to death rates of COVID at 3.5 times the rates of other groups.”

Along with obstacles preventing them from obtaining a college degree, many tribal businesses have closed and eliminated income sources for remote, rural Native communities, Hordewel said. 

“More than 50 percent of American Indian College Fund scholarship recipients work full-time or part-time to support their families while attending college, and more than 50 percent are their families’ primary source of income,” she wrote.

The American Indian College Fund provides scholarships and support for Native American students because its main goal is to make education more accessible to them, according to their website.

It’s also important to note that in the 2019-2020 academic year, 54 percent of College Fund scholarship recipients were first-generation college students,” Hordewel wrote.

“Education is necessary because it gives Native people access to a good career and economic equity for themselves and their families,” she continued. “Our work is critical to ensuring that first-time students have the financial resources they need to go to college, or we will lose a generation of students whose communities need educated workers as teachers, law enforcement officers, health care workers, and more.”

Camilo Fonseca contributed reporting.