When Yvonne Bilinski came to direct the Native American Center at Fort Lewis College 11 years ago, it lacked sufficient funding, staff, programs and broad appeal.
“Everybody I heard called it the Navajo Center and I looked around and I said, ‘I can see why they say that,’” she said.
So Bilinski, who is Navajo, set about redecorating the center to represent students from many tribal backgrounds, seeking funding and building a relevant and welcoming center to meet students’ academic, social, cultural and wellness needs.
She retired from the center last week, leaving behind a much larger staff, a speaker series, an orientation program for Native American students and their families – and many other programs.
About a third of the FLC student body is Native American or Alaskan Native; in fall 2016, there were 1,198 students representing 167 Native American tribes and Alaskan Native villages enrolled.
During the 2016-17 school year, more than 2,200 students took part in center activities. Some students were counted more than once if they participated in more than one activity, FLC spokesman Mitch Davis said.
Early on at FLC, Bilinski established a speaker series so students could meet Native American scientists, musicians, artists and others excelling in their fields. For the first three years, none of those speakers was Navajo.
In the beginning, there wasn’t any funding for a speaker series, so Bilinski asked departments at the college to help pay for one.
She later established more consistent funding for the center through grants, foundations and community organizations. She also established an orientation program, now known as the Native American Student and Family Welcome, to help students deal with culture shock and the transition from high school to college. As part of the welcoming, they talk about what it’s like to be a blond or red-haired Native American in a room full of Native Americans with dark hair and dark eyes.
They also talk about the reverse – how a Native American with dark hair and dark eyes may feel about a Native American who does not have the same features, she said.
“... We explore those issues about what students can do, give them some hints about how to get over these hurdles and make friends and develop a community,” she said.
To support students academically, she obtained funding for tutors and started a book, calculator and laptop loan program.
Bilinski’s experience with college Native American centers began before she joined FLC. As a UCLA student, she also worked to recruit students for the college’s Native American program at the Navajo Nation Fair and discovered she enjoyed it.
“It was meeting people. It was talking about a school that I loved ... just increasing knowledge about what potential education could mean for students,” she said.
She went on to recruit and support minority students in higher education during much of her career. She was the assistant director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs at the University of Rochester in New York and the associate director for the American Indian Program at Cornell University in New York before coming to FLC in 2006.
Bilinski’s own recruitment to college came early from teachers at her boarding school, the Navajo Methodist Mission School in Farmington. Her mother also encouraged her to pursue higher education.
After high school, Bilinski attended the University of Denver and later earned a bachelor’s in education and a master’s in history from New Mexico State University. While pursuing a Ph.D. at University of California-Los Angeles, she studied U.S. Western history, focusing on mineral development on Native American reservations.
Bilinski developed her passion for history by reading. In the third grade, she sought ways to have more access to books.
“The rules were such that since I was not a white person, I had to be sponsored by a white person to get a library card,” she said.
Having a library card allowed her to indulge in books about anthropology and archaeology. Going to Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec, where she grew up, also fueled her love of history. She loved going so often that the staff let her roam freely, she said.
Now she hands over a center she diversified from her experiences in higher education and her lifelong passion for culture and history.
In August, Elizabeth Bahe will replace Bilinski as director of the Native American Center and oversee the college’s Diversity Collaborative, which includes the Native American Center, El Centro de Muchos Colores and the Office of Diversity Programming.
Most recently, Bahe was the director of Native American Programs at Williamette University in Oregon.
Bilinski hopes Bahe preserves some of her programs at FLC, but she expects Bahe will also bring her own vision to the center.
“Whatever those ideas are, they are bound to be just as wonderful,” Bilinski said.