Students of color are now a majority at Fort Lewis College, a demographic mark duly noted but seemingly a natural development at an institution whose mission includes providing a tuition-waived college education to Native Americans.
“Diversity is deeply embedded in us,” said Steve Short, president of FLC’s board of trustees.
According to numbers reported by the school to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the racial and ethnic breakdown of students on campus is 46 percent white, 27 percent Native American, 11 percent Hispanic, 11 percent two or more races, 3 percent unanswered, 1 percent African-American, 1 percent Asian and 1 percent international students.
Because students who are half Native American can receive the tuition waiver, another measure of racial and ethnic breakdown brings the number of Native American students on campus to 38 percent, said FLC spokesman Mitch Davis.
In recent years, Davis said, FLC’s student body has hovered around 48 to 49 percent students of color, so crossing the 50 percent mark was something the school had expected.
FLC is one of only two colleges in the nation where a contractual agreement between state and federal governments created a tuition waiver available to any member of a federally recognized Native American tribe.
The tuition waiver’s roots date to 1911, when Colorado accepted a 6,279-acre land grant from the federal government. In exchange for the sprawling property 5 miles south of Hesperus, the state agreed to maintain the land and buildings there as an institution of learning and to admit Native American students with a tuition waiver.
Since then, the tuition waiver has provided a constant reminder of the college’s historic roots to bring affordable, quality education to a diverse group of students who historically have been excluded from academia.
Liz Bahe, director of the Native American Center and Diversity Collaborative, said the campus reflects the community, the Four Corners and an increasingly diverse nation.
“Identity isn’t only color. It’s regional differences; it’s who influenced (students) to become who they are. It’s nontraditional students,” she said. “I see FLC as a place for them. It’s also important to have generational diversity. We have people just out of high school to people who have been out of high school for 20 years.”
Angel Benally, 24, a Navajo Nation member from Show Low, Arizona, and a junior majoring in political science and pre-law, said the tuition waiver and the climate on campus drew her to FLC.
“It is helpful to have other Natives on campus. You don’t feel so isolated,” she said before meeting with a study group she formed with several other Navajo students in a sociology class. “It’s nice to be able to talk with other Navajos. You always feel you can talk with someone.
FLC’s smaller number of students also attracted her.
“I really didn’t know how I’d go to a really big institution like ASU (Arizona State University), or U of A (University of Arizona) or even NAU (Northern Arizona University),” she said.
Another member of the study group, Asia Lewis, 21, a Navajo Nation member from Bloomfield, New Mexico, said, “We kind of just feel connected. The first day of class, we just automatically came together.”
Sarah Chacon, 20, a junior and Navajo Nation member from Farmington, said, “I have an understanding of my fellow Native American students. We know where we come from. We know what each other’s communities are like. You have a familiar culture, a language and social behavior.”
While Native Americans make up the majority of students of color, other races and ethnicities help push the college over the 50 percent mark when it comes to diversity.
Kaidee Akullo, president of the FLC Black Student Union, said she would like to see FLC support African-American students at the same level it supports Native American and Latino students.
“We’d like a space, a physical space to meet, and we’d like to see more African-American faculty members for us to look to. I think that would be important for recruitment and retention,” she said.
Colton Rouleau, 18, a history major from Colorado Springs, said one reason he chose FLC over Montana State University was that he saw few other African-Americans during a tour of the Bozeman campus.
“Everywhere I went, I was the only black person in the crowd. It felt odd,” he said. “I don’t really feel that way here,” he said.
Gary Gianniny, an FLC professor of geosciences who has been at FLC for 20 years, said the benefits of a diverse student body are apparent daily.
“You may all be working on a similar problem in a class, but at the same time, it gives you a range of students where there’s a lot of different perspectives on how you should approach things,” he said.
“When we discuss climate change, we have a lot of views on the Arctic because we have many Alaskan Natives on campus. I don’t think you’d find something like that on any other campus in Colorado.”
Students who leave FLC, Gianniny said, are uniquely positioned to succeed because they have experience interacting with people from varying backgrounds.
“Students leave FLC after working within diverse groups, and they are much more aware and respectful of social and cultural differences,” he said. “That gives our students a unique ability to succeed in the workplace and in their careers because the country is getting more diverse.”
Shirena Trujillo Long, coordinator of El Centro de Muchos Colores Hispanic Resource Center, said once students arrive on campus, the school works to create an inviting atmosphere.
“We want to ensure people see themselves as at the right place here on campus. We’re intentional about that,” she said.
At El Centro, not only Latino students, but all students interested in Latin culture and Latin America meet, and the cross-culture environment proves enriching.
“When we gather around the table, we share our differences away from school in a social setting. We learn about each other, we chat and it enriches our own identities.”
Everything from the food choices to images on campus, Trujillo Long said, are aimed to help students from various backgrounds feel they belong.
El Centro includes its own kitchen, an important detail in creating a socially and culturally friendly environment.
“Food is a big part of identity, of who you are. We have an opportunity to eat together, and it allows people to sit and share ideas. It’s a small, but important thing,” Trujillo Long said. “When you have a sense of belonging, you’re more likely to stay.”
El Centro and the Native American Center offer academic support to students and offer a place where Hispanic and Native American students can gather to study, socialize and transition to college life. El Centro and the Native American Center also help guide students through the maze of the college’s bureaucracy.
FLC Director of Admission Jess Savage said, “Like most college campuses, we make concerted efforts to outreach to our local and regional communities as well as participate in recruitment and college awareness events aimed to help traditionally underrepresented students access college. Our local and regional presence certainly impacts our campus diversity as we are located in a diverse corner of the West.”
Savage said school representatives regularly visit regional high schools, Native American communities and regional college fairs as part of their recruitment efforts. Also, the school hosts campus visits specifically aimed and Native American and minority students.
New FLC President Tom Stritikus sees the school’s ability to nurture a diverse student body and to create a rich cultural mix as vital.
“Our job is to create spaces that students from various backgrounds can make their own, where they can make their own connections and make things work for them,” he said. “We want to be mindful of how we build an inclusive community, and we can always get better.
“Our whole success as a nation, a region and a campus will be determined by how we deliver higher education to first-generation and minority students.”