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Recruiting Indigenous Students to Colonial Institutions

October 24, 2022 Christopher San Diego State University Native Resource Center

As we enter yet another application cycle, millions of students will be aspiring to receive an admissions letter from the university of their choice. University faculty, staff and administrators across the country must stop and reflect on what they are asking from prospective students that would attend their institutions, particularly when recruiting Indigenous students.

I write this post from Kumeyaay territory and share with you the land acknowledgement that has been adopted by my home university:

We stand upon a land that carries the footsteps of millennia of Kumeyaay people. They are a people whose traditional lifeways intertwine with a worldview of earth and sky in a community of living beings. This land is part of a relationship that has nourished, healed, protected and embraced the Kumeyaay people to the present day. It is part of a world view founded in the harmony of the cycles of the sky and balance in the forces of life. For the Kumeyaay, red and black represent the balance of those forces that provide for harmony within our bodies as well as the world around us.

As students, faculty, staff and alumni of San Diego State University we acknowledge this legacy from the Kumeyaay. We promote this balance in life as we pursue our goals of knowledge and understanding. We find inspiration in the Kumeyaay spirit to open our minds and hearts. It is the legacy of the red and black. It is the land of the Kumeyaay. Eyay e’Hunn My heart is good.


Decolonial scholar Leigh Patel (2016) challenges educators everywhere to understand their roles as leaders that influence what worthiness means in academic settings. We, as educators, hold institutional power, whether we see it or not, and Indigenous youth look to us for guidance and to model the way. We know that a college education is beneficial in providing upward mobility and many first generation students of color depend on the access to higher education to benefit their families and home communities (Espinoza et al, 2018). I focus much of my work on integrating decolonial ideology into a colonial constructed institution and taking a pause to enact meaningful intentionality as part of Indigenous ways of knowing. I ask that my colleagues do the same when entering communities and approaching Native youth trying to bring college degrees back to their home communities.


I look back to my own experience as an incoming student on a large campus with very few people that I knew. Entering college was something brand new to me and I did not know fully what I was getting myself into when I had to navigate the culture of a colonial structured school. As a first-year student, I wasn’t fully immersed in my Indigenous culture and identity. It was by chance that the Native student organization recruited me as a member. That was coupled with taking my first American Indian studies courses for me to really start feeling like I was meant to be pursuing a higher education. This is what I carried with me in my years conducting outreach directed at Indigenous students on behalf of the university. I wanted to show them that I was once in a similar place as them. I was also nervous, unsure, and even afraid about what I would do in college or later once I had that college degree. Sharing this outlook on pausing to then reflect, lets us recenter ourselves and actually be better resources for students, especially the Indigenous students on our campuses.


When asking students and staff what they wished they knew upon entering college, one Indigenous staff member expressed that they would have prepared better for how fast-paced a four-year college can be. A student described the high level of competition they currently feel in the classroom, “I have to prove that I am smart or everyone else will think that I am dumb.” A recent graduate shared that they wished they would have been more intentional about their level of engagement on campus, expressing that they felt like they missed out on a holistic college experience. An additional staff member explained that they wish they would have understood imposter syndrome sooner because there were times when they felt out of place when sharing their lived experiences and them being physically different from their peers. A last student provided that they wish they would have understood more of the skills that they needed to be an excellent student such as learning how to manage their time better.

Inquiring about what individuals wished they had known about during their transition to college proved to be an important question to ask these students and professionals. Everyone indicated that they had taken the time to reflect on that time in their lives and were able to give an answer fairly quickly. To me, this demonstrates that we as Indigenous people often reflect on our experiences in colonial spaces but we need more spaces to share out what we have learned. After all, many Indigenous people rely on storytelling as a means to teach and we can create more opportunities to provide that space in colonial institutions as a conscientious disruption to western pedagogies.

Closing Thoughts 

These experiences reinforce that we need to pause and listen to what Native students can teach us especially if we want them to attend our universities. As we recruit Native students to our schools, I urge folks to remember to pause, reflect and to listen. Listen to what Native students are telling us and listen to ourselves. As an Indigenous student/scholar/educator, I challenge myself by embodying decolonial practices in my work and outside life because in this competitive environment, I do not want to compromise my identity. We want our Indigenous students to succeed in our institutions and they can with the support of their families at home and Indigenous faculty, staff and administrators at school. How that happens on our campuses is often up to Indigenous faculty and even students but we can create those spaces that foster a sense of community and belonging for Indigenous people. Decolonizing universities includes addressing all the barriers that hinder Indigenous students from earning college degrees starting from our recruitment practices and how we support them through graduation. Indigenous focused spaces offer so much to the students that frequent them such as a reprieve from the harm of stigma, microaggressions from peers and faculty, and all the other effects of navigating through a colonial institution. As we pause, reflect and listen, we can remember why we are here serving; to educate, to inspire, to create change, and to make our ancestors proud.

Espinosa, L., Kelchen, R., & Taylor, M. (2018). Minority serving institutions as engines of upward mobility.

Patel, L. (2016). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. Routledge.


About Chris: 

Raised in San Diego, Chris and his family are from the Tule River tribe of Yokuts of Central California. As a first generation college student, he earned his bachelor's degree in Television, Film & New Media and American Indian Studies from San Diego State University (SDSU) as well as his Masters degree in Postsecondary Educational Leadership with a Specialization in Student Affairs. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Education at SDSU and Claremont Graduate University with his research focusing on Native American identity formation, masculine identity formation, issues of access to higher education and decolonization methodologies. Chris currently serves as the inaugural Director of the SDSU Native Resource Center. Chris also serves as the President of the American Indian Alumni Chapter of San Diego State, and founding member of the Native American and Indigenous Faculty Staff Association as well as the Men of Color Alliance at SDSU.