Monday, October 1, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — Between outreach programs and campus groups, minority students finding their niche at the University of Virginia would seem easy.

Not so for Monty Johns Jr.

Mr. Johns, part Cayuga Indian and a sophomore computer-engineering major, noticed that faces like his were scarce at the Charlottesville campus, where there are roughly 40 American-Indian undergraduates and graduate students among the more than 20,000 students.

“It’s hard to increase numbers for a group that is so small, but that’s what I’m trying to do,” said Mr. Johns, head of a new American-Indian Student Union, and the creator of a mentoring program, welcome reception and other outreach efforts to entice American-Indian students.

The school has joined such colleges as Virginia Tech in expanding outreach for micro-minorities, often overlooked as administrators push to diversify student bodies.

They face competition from campuses with stronger American-Indian programs and lingering mistrust for largely white institutions.

Census officials recorded about 158,200 American Indians among the nearly 16 million college students enrolled in 2001.

Their numbers are equally low at other Virginia schools. At George Mason University, for example, there were just 99 American Indians among more than 29,000 students last fall.

At Virginia, larger minority groups have traditionally gotten the most attention.

Peer-advisory programs pair incoming black students with black upperclassmen for guidance. Leadership programs and a resource center are available for Asian, Hispanic and homosexual students.

However, American-Indian students lack similar resources.

“It’s kind of like a paradox,” Mr. Johns said. “If you don’t have enough American-Indian programs, you don’t have enough American Indians. If you don’t have enough American Indians, you don’t have enough programs.”

As a result, Mr. Johns last spring decided to revive the school’s on-again, off-again American-Indian student group.

“We’d [previously] get a group of students who were really excited,” he said. “But once the students graduate, that goes away.”

This time, the students will have administrative backing. In addition to leading the group, Mr. Johns recently became an intern at the Office of the Dean of Students, a new position to develop programs for American-Indian students.

Mr. Johns so far has helped secure funding for a welcome reception for American-Indian students, a peer-mentoring program to retain students and a powwow.

He also wrote a letter that the school will send to American-Indian youths urging them to give Virginia a try.

“Part of it is that indigenous people are demanding” attention, said Samuel Cook, coordinator for American-Indian Studies at Virginia Tech.

“The other part of it is sort of the nationwide movement toward diversity,” he said.

At Virginia Tech, officials established a pre-college program bringing American-Indian youths to the campus and periodically host an American-Indian higher education summit with the University of Virginia.

About 70 American-Indians enrolled last fall.

“It’s not a really explosive movement,” Mr. Cook said. “But it’s certainly growing.”

While schools are attempting to open their arms, American-Indian students are not always forthcoming.

They tend to go to schools with a reputation for well-known American-Indian studies departments and specialized tutoring and housing opportunities, Mr. Johns said, pointing to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

“They feel more comfortable there,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Cook said some traditional parents are wary of college because they think their children will forget their roots.

College “has historically been seen as an assimilating factor — Western education as a means of what some would call whitewashing,” Mr. Cook said. “It’s historically been a concern [that] kids go away, they cease to use their language.”

Mr. Johns has seen that tension play out in his family. His grandfather, who was raised on a Canadian reservation, was so angry when Mr. Johns’ father went to college that the two didn’t speak for years.

“In the Indian community, it’s considered vastly unpopular,” said Mr. Johns, whose parents encouraged him to pursue his academic career.

He hopes to change negative perceptions by creating a community at Virginia.

“This is not the end of your existence as an Indian,” he said.

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