Skip to main content

Request info

Oregon State Ecampus’ online Tribal Communities Initiative featured in a newly published book titled ‘Race and Rurality’

Joe Peters

Joe Peters, a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe, at the Kaku-Ixt Mana Ina Haws. Peters earned his Master’s in Natural Resources online with Oregon State.

The chapter, authored by Marleigh Perez and Eddie Rodriguez, describes key learnings for supporting Indigenous students in an online learning environment.

By Elena Moffet

When asked about the history that preceded Oregon State University’s successful online Tribal Communities Initiative, Marleigh Perez, senior director of student success at OSU Ecampus, is blunt. 

“Historically, time and time again, OSU did not follow through on our commitments with the tribes,” Perez says. “And so, I think as an institution, we had a reputation that we were hard to trust.”

Perez was part of a team, led by Dr. Allison Davis-White Eyes and Oregon State’s Office of Institutional Diversity, that wanted to change that. Together, the group created a sustainable initiative that would better serve Native and Indigenous students in Oregon and beyond — through affordable access to a high-quality online education. 

Since launching the online tribal communities initiative in 2019, OSU Ecampus has seen a 32% growth in enrollment of Native and Indigenous-identifying students at all levels (non-degree, undergraduate, post-baccalaureate and graduate). In 2021, over 1,200 prospective students identified themselves as Tribal affiliated on their request for information form. 

So, what’s made the initiative successful?

Perez and her Oregon State colleague Eddie Rodriguez, the Ecampus student engagement program manager, recently documented some of the initiative’s key learnings and successes for a chapter in a newly published book titled “Race and Rurality: Considerations for Advancing Equity in Higher Education.”

Cover of the book "Race and Rurality: Considerations for Advancing Higher Education Equity"

Read the chapter written by OSU Ecampus senior director of student success Marleigh Perez, Ed.D., and student engagement program manager Eddie Rodriguez, MA, in the new book “Race and Rurality: Considerations for Advancing Higher Education Equity”

The book, which was released Nov. 2, features writing from experts all over the United States and offers insights into how higher education institutions and practitioners can better support rural communities of all different backgrounds — challenging the myth that rural America is predominantly white. 

Read on for highlights of what Perez and Rodriguez shared in their chapter.

Key lessons learned

Relationships are everything

The online tribal communities initiative was created in partnership with leaders from Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes, OSU leaders and community organizations  — all of which improved the overall experience of Native and Indigenous students.

From the very beginning stages, Davis-White Eyes sought feedback from Oregon tribal community members on how the initiative should be shaped. 

“She took it to the tribes and said, ‘What’s important to you all?” explains Perez. “What do your students need? What’s important if they want to learn online at OSU?” 

Tribal community members emphasized the importance of having culturally responsive staff to serve Native students and requested that Native students have a single point of contact that they could connect with throughout their entire online learning experience through OSU Ecampus. This remains a feature of the initiative, with Rodriguez currently serving in this role.

Be respectful in marketing to tribal communities

For the initiative to have an impact, it was critical to build awareness of Oregon State’s online education opportunities among tribal communities. But it’s really important for that marketing to be culturally appropriate and reflect the communities it speaks to. In their chapter, Perez and Rodriguez write: 

“Marketing efforts within higher education have historically misrepresented our diverse community of learners, especially those students who come from historically marginalized groups (Pippert et al., 2013). However, if done appropriately, marketing can serve as one medium to center the student voice and advance justice alongside our diverse learners.”

Ecampus applies a diversity, equity and inclusion lens for all marketing strategies and tactics, and that includes the promotion of the tribal communities initiative. This involved developing stories from Native and Indigenous people in a manner that honored their voices and working directly with the tribes’ own communication mediums to build awareness of Ecampus.

marleigh perez

Marleigh Perez, Ed.D., is the senior director of student success at Ecampus.

Foster engagement and belonging

The initiative is designed to have a continuous feedback loop between OSU and Oregon’s tribal communities, and that continued relationship has been an important part of shaping the way forward.

“When we did our first report back to the tribes, they were excited,” says Perez. “They loved the marketing materials and seeing enrollment numbers and that we honored their request to have a single point of contact. But their biggest question back to us was, ’What are your current students telling you that they need?

Rodriguez currently serves as the main point of contact for all Native and Indigenous students who learn online through Ecampus. True to the original vision of the initiative, he offers one-on-one advising and support, but he also works behind the scenes —  soliciting student feedback about their online learning experience and advocating for partnerships that will create a greater sense of belonging. 

More opportunities for connection and belonging are one of the main things current online Native and Indigenous students want, Rodriguez says. While he continues to seek more solutions moving forward, there has also been progress. 

“COVID obviously wasn’t a good thing, but the advantage of that was there was so much momentum around everything going online,” says Rodriguez. “We were able to present more virtual events and opportunities for engagement through collaborations with Kaku-Ixt Mana Ina Haws,” the cultural resource center for OSU’s Indigenous community. 

The introduction of an online indigenous studies minor also opened up a lot of meaningful opportunities for connection.

“Students were really excited about those course offerings,” says Rodriguez. “There’s some traditional knowledge that’s shared in that curriculum that they have been able to apply to their own studies and also bring back to their tribes.” 

Rodriguez is also a committee member of a new President’s Commission on Indigenous Affairs, which launched in the summer of 2022, to provide a central infrastructure for all of the work the university is doing to serve tribal communities.

“It’s an effort to create more synergy amongst everyone,” says Rodriguez.  “And through that commission, I’m finding my way into these different spaces at Oregon State to connect and partner for the benefit of online students.”

Eddie Rodriguez

Eddie Rodriguez, M.A., is the Ecampus student engagement program manager and serves as the main point of contact for OSU’s Native and Indigenous online students.

Looking forward

Oregon State University continues to prioritize meaningful reconciliation and support of tribal communities. 

In 2022, OSU announced that any enrolled member of a federally recognized tribal nation is eligible for in-state tuition when attending Oregon State. OSU Ecampus also worked to ensure that all of its programs were eligible under the recent Oregon legislature that granted free college tuition to members of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes for the 2022-23 school year. 

“We’re hoping that continues to get funded through the legislature and that online students can take advantage of that,” says Perez. “But any growth moving forward is really focused on community building.”

For Perez and Rodriguez, relationship building — showing up, following through, and continuing to engage and learn from the tribes — is critical to the ongoing success of this Ecampus initiative and the continued support of Native and Indigenous students. 

“Our goal is not to dominate the conversation, but to be active listeners and allies,” says Perez. “This initiative couldn’t be successful without the work of many, and the valuable input from Native and Indigenous online students and their communities.”

For other higher education institutions that want to develop initiatives in support of tribal communities, Perez and Rodriguez stress that to begin, it’s important to understand and acknowledge your institution’s history as part of the work.

“A key lesson in the development of our initiative was that we must acknowledge our past histories,” Perez and Rodriguez conclude in their chapter.  “Acknowledging our history allows us to create an authentic student experience by addressing past mistakes and failures.”

To learn more about how colleges and universities can more effectively welcome rural students and communities of color, check out the book “Race and Rurality: Considerations for Advancing Equity in Higher Education,” which was published in Nov. 2023 and is available through the publisher’s website.


Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, is located within the traditional homelands of the Marys River or Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya. Following the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855, Kalapuya people were forcibly removed to reservations in Western Oregon. Today, living descendants of these people are a part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon ( and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians ( 

We encourage you to learn more about this land acknowledgment and the continuing impacts of this history on tribal communities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *