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Serving tribal communities through online education

A black sign in gold lettering that reads that Oregon State University, which serves tribal communities through online education and support

By Marleigh Perez, Ed.D.
Director of student success
Oregon State University Ecampus

Aug. 16, 2021

Adult and online students have always been considered a diverse group of learners, primarily based on age, gender and life circumstances. However, new trends are emerging in online education that require both our attention and a demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

At Oregon State University Ecampus, we’re starting to see more traditionally diverse students choose online education–students of color, in high financial need and Pell-eligible, and first-generation college students. This, along with a leadership-driven commitment to repair and rebuild relationships with tribal communities, led to the launch of our Ecampus Tribal Communities Initiative in 2019.

This initiative is meant to better serve Native and Indigenous students and communities through online education. We’ve seen an increase over the last few years in coverage of Native and Indigenous issues in mainstream media, and I expect that many institutions of higher education are starting to more intentionally explore their role in working to dismantle the country’s marginalization of Native communities.

For this initiative to take shape effectively and authentically, we worked with various partners across the university and in our state’s tribal communities. Partnerships with Native and Indigenous faculty and staff across campus have been instrumental in guiding our efforts. The initiative was meant to demonstrate a sustainable and long-term commitment to our Native and Indigenous students, primarily through engagement with the nine confederated Oregon tribes.

However, two years later, our initiative has engaged more than 1,000 students from all over the country, who have showed interest in pursuing their education online at Oregon State.

Through guidance from many well-respected colleagues who were kind enough to let me learn from them over the years, I’ve learned some tips that I’d like to share. In our work at OSU Ecampus, there have been five considerations that have proven critical to our launch and continued collaboration on this initiative. I believe any institution can do these things as they seek to engage Native and Indigenous students and communities.

Photo of Marleigh Perez, director of student success for Oregon State University Ecampus

Marleigh Perez, director of student success for Oregon State Ecampus

Acknowledge the history

It’s important for the institution’s history of working with these groups, which is often negative, to be acknowledged. Own it, talk about it, continue to hold yourselves accountable, and listen to the communities that you hope to engage with and serve.

Be tribal-centric (community-centric)

While those involved in building out this type of initiative may have ideas about what this work or programming should look like, none of them matter if they’re not aligned with the needs of the communities you intend to work with. At OSU, we continue to utilize the valuable feedback Tribes have provided us on their needs, concerns and strong communities, which helps us tailor our initiative usefully.

Focus on community and belonging

Fostering a sense of community and belonging should be central to this work. Nurturing relationships with tribal leaders, connecting students to others in the Native community at your institution, engaging Native and Indigenous faculty and staff and centering connections and belonging in your communications are all critical aspects of supporting and engaging Native and Indigenous students.

Utilize the power of storytelling

Storytelling has been an effective way to share our commitment while highlighting amazing students and faculty. Marketing and publications tend to focus on institutional pride, but a shift in focus to your Native and Indigenous students, staff and faculty is key in demonstrating to tribal communities that you care about who they are.

Establish a feedback loop

Continue to share and report to your partners — tribal community members in this case — but always hold space for concerns and feedback. It’s important for them to know what you’re doing, but the primary purpose of the feedback loop is to engage your partners and give them an active role in guiding your work.

The work to engage and support diverse online students is never easy, but it’s important work nonetheless. Over the course of this initiative, we’ve seen increased engagement from our Native-identifying students, built better partnerships with units across campus, engaged and learned from Native faculty and staff, and have created a more welcoming pathway through higher education for Native students throughout the country, without having them leave their communities.

Opportunities to connect with Native educators through various organizations have been critical, allowing us to share what we know and learn from others doing this work as well. Through this initiative, Ecampus has been able to contribute to institutional efforts to repair relationships with local tribes by remaining accountable to the community and building what we believe to be a sustainable initiative.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in EvoLLLution, an online newspaper focused on higher education.

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