WCU, Eastern Band set goal for Cherokee student enrollment, support, success

Members of the student organization Digali’i work to foster Native American culture on campus. Representing the organization are (back, from left) Joy Hutcher, Brittney Driver, Shana Lambert, Alease Harris, Ashley Oxendine, Cole Saunooke, Ashley Locklear, (kneeling, from left) Cassidy Galaviz, Chris Textor and Driver Blythe.

As Western Carolina University enrollment continues an upward trend, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the university are working to ensure those numbers include a significant portion of local Native American students.

That shared goal was formalized Tuesday, Oct. 10, with a stroke of a pen as Principal Chief Richard Sneed and Chancellor David O. Belcher signed a memorandum of understanding. That agreement establishes a baseline goal of having at least 50 Eastern Band students enrolled at WCU during any given semester, but university officials said they fully expect to exceed that goal considerably as time goes by. The memorandum also sets a goal of reinvigorating the Native American student organization on campus.

That is a good mission, considering the proximity between the university and the Qualla Boundary, said Driver Blythe, a WCU senior majoring in criminal justice and an enrolled member of the Eastern Band from the Birdtown township. “A lot of kids need a push to go further in their education, and with Western being a growing and successful university located about 30 minutes from Cherokee, it will help bring in more of our population as students,” Blythe said.

Driver Blythe, vice president of Digali’i

University officials estimate that at least 45 Eastern Band members are currently taking WCU classes. Part of the agreement calls for the tribe to provide means for the university to better identify Cherokee students beyond the broad “Native American” category.

The move toward increasing Cherokee enrollment comes as WCU engages in the yearlong interdisciplinary learning theme “Cherokee: Community. Culture. Connections.” Academic themes are intended to drive campus conversations, build curricular and co-curricular connections, and lead to enrichment. For the first time, faculty, staff and students were able to vote on the selection, and “Cherokee” received nearly a third of the votes.

The Eastern Band enrollment goal was set during the rededication of a campus housing facility as Judaculla Hall, a name chosen to further honor the partnership between WCU and its neighbors on the Qualla Boundary. The name “Judaculla” refers to a great giant who, according to Cherokee legend, resided in the Cullowhee Valley and could traverse between the mountains and the spiritual realm with ease.

An accompanying part of the memorandum of understanding is an instructional credit agreement, which outlines communication and outreach collaborations designed to promote the educational paths and programs that WCU offers. “The desire is for WCU to be a community of opportunity for Eastern Band members and for discovery of those opportunities to occur early and often,” said Phil Cauley, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate enrollment. “The Cherokee are renowned for their unique language. Higher education has a language all its own, and, unfortunately, the acronyms, jargon, rules and processes of that language can become unintentional barriers to success. The instructional agreement seeks to streamline enrollment and payment processes in order to bolster student access and success.

“Cullowhee was home to the Cherokee and was known as ‘Judaculla’s Place’ long before Robert Lee Madison founded Cullowhee Academy in 1889 in a village that was called Painter,” he said. “The agreement underscores the strong desire for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians to feel at home and to benefit from the educational opportunities that are offered in the same geographic footprint where Judaculla once walked.”

The effort will rely on WCU’s Cherokee Center, located at 1594 Acquoni Road, in Cherokee. Established in 1975 as an office for outreach and partnership development, the center is committed to serving tribal and nontribal residents of Qualla Boundary and the surrounding communities by improving educational opportunities. The center provides a broad range of assistance for Eastern Band students interested in attending WCU, which includes application processes, campus tours, educational workshops, alumni engagement and cultural awareness both on campus and off. The center is the headquarters for all communication between WCU and the Eastern Band.

Sky Sampson, director of the Cherokee Center

“Here at the Cherokee Center, we want to be a part of the community, and Western is such a natural fit here on the Qualla Boundary because it allows our students to gain their education and still be close to family,” said Sky Sampson, center director and a WCU alumna. “We’re developing a strong relationship with surrounding schools and can be a partner for any Cherokee student wanting to continue their education at WCU.”

The influence of Cherokee heritage runs deep at WCU, with the naming of Judaculla Hall providing the latest example. Across campus, the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center features numerous Cherokee-inspired design elements in recognition of Cullowhee’s location on the site of early Cherokee settlements. A Cherokee language initiative, funded by grants from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, is spearheaded by the Eastern Band and WCU, while the university’s Cherokee Studies Program is nationally recognized for excellence.

“The faculty and staff of the Cherokee Studies Program contribute to the goal of increased retention and graduation of Cherokee students by promoting awareness and understanding of Cherokee culture and indigenous issues on campus and by serving as a resource for Cherokee students,” said Ben Steere, program director. “We have been delighted to partner with many organizations across campus to develop events and programs for the learning theme, and we hope that this has helped our Cherokee students feel even more welcome at WCU.”

An examination of the Cherokee student experience was recently published in the Research in Higher Education Journal. “College Experiences of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” an article by Rebecca Lasher, WCU assistant professor of social work, and Don Good, a WCU alumnus and professor of educational leadership at East Tennessee State University, describes the study in which they used an 18-question survey to examine the educational experiences of Eastern Band college students.

One strategy developed from their research that may help increase recruitment and retention of Eastern Band students is the creation of a peer-mentoring program. Current WCU students from the tribe could serve as mentors for high school students by inviting them to campus, where they might attend social events together. Those mentors would serve as positive educational role models and could stimulate younger generations of Eastern Band students to attend WCU.

Rebecca Lasher

Rebecca Lasher, co-author of “College Experiences of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians”

A crucial aspect is to provide nurturance and encouragement to Cherokee High School students by creating a safe environment to “practice” college with a fellow tribal member before making a decision to attend WCU. In addition, the incorporation of elements from the Eastern Band culture on campus will allow students to experience a sense of inclusion and unique space. “We should have students advising us,” Lasher said. “They will let us know what they need, what they want, and we should empower them to be a part of the process as we develop as a community and university.”

Steps already are underway for revitalization of the Digali’i association, the student organization that fosters Native American culture and works to educate others about it, and strives to ensure that Native Americans are recognized at WCU. The organization has been active in creating social events and activities for the native population throughout the school year, and establish special events for students and faculty. Both Sampson and Steere advise Digali’i, which Steere said has “an excellent group of new officers and stronger participation than we have had in many years.”

“We know there is a presence of a native community here, but we need to promote it,” said Cole Saunooke, a freshman from Yellowhill township on the Qualla Boundary and a Digali’i member. “The association brings us together and lets us share our native culture. This is a firsthand experience. I grew up with it, but others can learn and it helps (members) take on leadership roles.”

Brittney Driver, a Digali’i member and an enrolled member of the Eastern Band, is the third sibling in her family to attend WCU. The freshman joined Digali’i at the start of the academic year, drawn to the sense of fellowship and opportunities to help other Native American students. “I love it, being around other natives,” Driver said. “I learned about it through Sky Sampson, who encouraged me to join.”

Membership is open to any student interested in Native American heritage. “My friend is a Lumbee and she said I should join,” said Alease Harris, a psychology major from Waxhall. “You don’t have to be Cherokee or even a native to be a member, which is great, because it’s about coming together.”

An off-campus organization expected to take a key role for increasing Eastern Band enrollment is the EBCI-WCU Alumni Club, created by the Cherokee Center in response to the outpouring of support from Cherokee alumni and families. The club keeps the hundreds of Eastern Band graduates engaged with WCU events and activities, and draws support for future students. “We are so excited to get our (Eastern Band) alumni involved and we want them to know how proud we are of their accomplishments,” Sampson said.

Prospective Eastern Band students and other potential students are encouraged to visit the WCU Cherokee Center to apply or schedule a campus visit. Open House events on the Cullowhee campus are scheduled for two Saturdays in 2018, Feb. 24 and March 24. Weekday campus tours also are available year-round by appointment for students and their families. Preregistration for Open House and more information are available by going to openhouse.wcu.edu or by calling the Office of Undergraduate Admission at 828-227-7317 or toll-free 877-928-4968.