By Barry Dunn
“This bill proposes to establish at least one college in every State upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, …”
– Justin Smith Morrill, 1862
As stewards of the land-grant mission, we are responsible for marshaling our universities closer and closer toward our historic commitment of outreach and service to all. In 2018, South Dakota State University (SDSU) created the “Wokini Initiative” to deliberately reach a historically underserved population in our state – members of the Lakota and Dakota tribes.
In Lakota, the word “wokini” means “new life” or “a new beginning.” The goal of this initiative is to help members of South Dakota’s nine tribal nations access the educational and advancement opportunities our university offers. Another important part of the initiative is to help preserve and recognize American Indian culture.
With more than 200 majors, minors, and specializations, SDSU is our state’s largest university. We provide a portfolio of diverse learning experiences with internship opportunities, study abroad experiences and experiential learning. Ninety-five percent of our students go onto jobs, graduate school, or other opportunities, such as internships and fellowships.
However, too few of our students represent the rich heritage of the Lakota and Dakota people, which are the longest-standing and fastest-growing population within our state. In fact, while nearly 10 percent of our state’s population, they currently make up less than one percent of our student body. The difficult truth is, while many Lakota and Dakota youth in South Dakota have the academic prowess and imagination to attend college, they don’t have the required resources to come here or persist to graduation. Many of them live among the poorest of the poor in the United States and are growing up on reservations facing the highest unemployment rates in our nation, in some cases over 80 percent.
The Wokini Initiative is awarding scholarships for up to five years to qualifying students. These students can choose from all fields of study at SDSU, with opportunities to focus on career-building programs in education, healthcare, nutrition, agriculture and business. During their tenure at SDSU, each Wokini student will also be provided resources for knowledge in academic, personal, health, and financial wellness required to succeed in school and in life.
We are modeling the scholarships upon similar programs of multifaceted support that are time-honored and successful. Namely, those given to NCAA Division I student athletes as well as the federally funded TRiO programs, including Student Support Services and Upward Bound. Students in each of these programs consistently outperform the general university student population here at SDSU. Furthermore, those in the TRiO programs significantly outperform eligible non-participant students.
In addition, we are replacing our very limited current student center for American Indians – which is in the basement of a building on the far edge of campus and building a new one in the heart of our campus. The goal is two-fold: to create a home away from home for Lakota and Dakota students while also serving and providing contemporary multi-purpose academic collaboration space to the greater campus community.
With tutors, computer labs, study areas, classrooms, and recreational spaces, the new American Indian Student Center (AISC) will be the hub of cultural programming, services and advocacy that supports the recruitment, transition, retention, persistence, and graduation of Lakota and Dakota students at SDSU. The center will offer peer mentoring, as well as professional development opportunities, and retention programming. In addition, the AISC will assist the university community in understanding the significance, value, and strength of the American Indian experience.
It is important to note, SDSU has made efforts to better serve the people of the nine tribal nations in South Dakota for decades. Unfortunately, despite the hard work and passion behind them, all past efforts eventually ended as a consequence of unsustainable funding sources.
To help ensure Wokini would be sustained long term, we chose to base-fund the initiative with income from our historic land-grant lands – 120,000 acres of land the federal government once guaranteed to the Lakota and Dakota tribes, before reclaiming it in 1887 without officially gaining consent from tribal leaders, and then assigning it to SDSU with statehood. In other words, we are investing annual proceeds from our land-grant land into the heirs from whom the land was taken so many years ago. And in so doing, we begin anew and have pledged, just as Justin Morrill did so long ago, to provide access to all.
SDSU is a public university whose work clearly benefits its graduates. It also is a comprehensive university, where research and outreach spur economic development and prosperity for all sectors of the state’s and region’s economy and strengthens community and social structures.
We anticipate many of the Wokini students, like the tribal nation members before them who have graduated from SDSU and other academic institutions, will remain locally active on reservations and within other communities. These graduates will strengthen and bolster all sectors of their tribes as well as our state’s social and economic structures. Just as importantly, we anticipate the legacies of these students will serve to empower each next generation to imagine a world in which anything is possible.
Barry Dunn is president of South Dakota State University.