Elders-in-residence helping Native American students transition to Western

CULLOWHEE – Tom Belt and Freeman Owle were two of the lucky ones. As young Native American students in the 1970s, they left their home communities to venture onto college campuses and found safety nets of support to help them make the transition to being successful college students.

Belt, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was one of just 24 Native American students on a University of Oklahoma campus of 20,000-plus. But there was support for those two dozen students through the campus’ native student office and through several off-campus organizations, he said.

Owle, raised in the Birdtown community on the Qualla Boundary, is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He became a student at Western Carolina University in 1974 and left four years later with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“There was no designated place on campus for Cherokee students to gather, and so we began to gather in the social work department and a faculty member there became our unofficial counselor,” Owle said. “We all made it through simply because someone cared enough to tell us we could really do it.”

Now, three decades later, Belt and Owle find themselves in positions to help present-day Native American students find their place on Western’s campus and achieve academic success. Since January, both men have been working as “elders-in-residence” on the campus through the university’s Cherokee Studies Program.

The part-time positions allow Belt and Owle to serve as mentors, advisers and friends to the approximately 150 Native American students at Western. The positions are funded through the Cherokee Studies Program’s Sequoyah Initiative, a three-year project designed to increase the participation of Cherokee scholars, artists and leaders in the university’s intellectual and cultural life. The Sequoyah Initiative is being funded in its first year through a $200,000 grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

Western’s elders-in-residence program is one of just a handful of such programs in the nation, and the Cherokee Studies staff believes it is the only one in the Southeast, said Tom Hatley, Western’s Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies.

The population of Native American students on Western’s campus includes about 100 students who are members of the Eastern Band. For those students, and many other Native American students, making the transition to college can be a difficult maneuver, Owle said.

“The Cherokee community is very close-knit,” he said. “Everyone knows everyone else and there’s a certain amount of security there. Once you leave that community and come to a university, you begin to search for that community and, in most cases, you don’t find it. It’s a cultural shock. Students can fall through the cracks.”

Western Carolina University elders-in-residence Tom Belt (left) and Freeman Owle (right) meet with Josh Dugan, a university senior who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Western Carolina University elders-in-residence Tom Belt (left) and Freeman Owle (right) meet with Josh Dugan, a university senior who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Although it’s only 28 miles from the Cullowhee campus to downtown Cherokee, in psychological terms the distance can seem much longer for Cherokee students and other Native American students at Western, Belt said.

Non-Native American students usually find it easy to identify with the university they attend and immerse themselves in campus life, but “Native American students haven’t been able to cross that bridge, yet,” Belt said.

“Native American students need to identify with the university in some way. It sort of gives them permission to be here and think, ‘I’m not in someone else’s world.’

“The university doors have always been open to Cherokee students, but they haven’t always stayed,” Belt said. “Our job is to help them understand they can function and succeed here. When they feel a part of the university, they will excel.”

Belt and Owle plan to work with Western’s Native American Student Association to bolster the activities of that group, both on- and off-campus. They also want to act as liaisons between Native American students and the academic resources that are available on campus.

“Students sometimes don’t know they have options if they make a bad grade. We want to help them access advisers and tutorial programs that will aid in their academic studies,” Belt said.

In addition to his position as elder-in-residence, Belt works as a counselor’s aide in a treatment center for Native American youth with chemical dependencies. A fluent speaker of the traditional Cherokee language, he also taught a course in Cherokee linguistics at Western during the spring semester.

Owle is an accomplished storyteller, Cherokee historian and stone carver who has lectured throughout the eastern United States . His duties on Western’s campus also include serving as a guest lecturer in various academic departments and helping student teachers learn about the ways and beliefs of the Cherokee people.

Both Belt and Owle can be reached through the offices of the Cherokee Studies Program at (828) 227-2303.