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Native American high schoolers visit FLC for a weekend of discovery and community-building
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Native American high schoolers visit FLC for a weekend of discovery and community-building

DURANGO— For many incoming college students, the transition to university life is fraught with apprehension. Devon Lynch was no exception. As an introvert with a tendency towards shyness, the thought of leaving home and venturing into the unknown was daunting. However, his journey to Fort Lewis College began an unexpected transformation.

Situated amidst the scenic beauty of Southwest Colorado, with the towering Hesperus Mountain – a sacred site for his tribe – in clear view, FLC quickly became more than just a place of learning for Lynch. It became a home. The presence of this mountain, deeply rooted in the cultural teachings of the Navajo Nation, provided a comforting sense of belonging and identity. He discovered a community that embraced him and celebrated his cultural identity.

"It felt special for me to come here and receive my education," Lynch said. "Fort Lewis allows you to connect to your roots and be loud and proud of who you are. We’re all in this together; the biggest thing here is community." 

This sense of community was evident during the Native American College Day held at Fort Lewis College on Saturday. The event saw nearly 50 prospective students of Indigenous backgrounds, accompanied by their families, gather in the Vallecito Room of the Student Union Ballroom.

Heather Shotton, vice president of Diversity Affairs at FLC, said that the goal of Native American College Day is to inform students from Indigenous backgrounds about college and opportunities at FLC, acknowledging the unique perspectives and experiences they bring.

This year, the College offered free lodging for the event to students and their families thanks in part to the $63,000 gift from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians based in southern California.

This focus is particularly relevant at FLC, where about 40% of the student population is Native American. The College offers the Native American Tuition Waiver for students who are citizens of a federally recognized tribe or Alaska Native Village or have a parent that is an enrolled citzen of a federally recognized tribe or Alaska Native Village.

“We want Indigenous students to know that here, they can go to college and be successful. And there's a community to support them throughout,” Shotton said. “We’re proud to offer accessibility to attend college and uphold responsibility to Indigenous students as a Native American-serving institution.”

Ihaan Albers, an 18-year-old high school student from northern California and a member of the Karuk tribe, had many of the same reservations after making the long drive and pulling into Durango a couple days before Native American College Day. 

Initially, it was FLC’s Native American Tuition Waiver that caught Albers' attention. However, after spending some time in the picturesque surroundings of Durango and directly experiencing the diversity of FLC's student body, Albers felt a strong sense of belonging and comfort.

“I was nervous coming in, because I’m definitely a homebody, but (this experience) has made it clear that it might be worth it,” Albers said.

Caleb Bailey, 17, and his father, Sam, flew from Alaska to Albuquerque and then drove nearly four hours to Durango. Bailey, who aspires to earn a degree in engineering, found FLC’s extensive course offerings particularly appealing. But for him, the welcoming community at FLC added a valuable layer to his college selection process.

“Yes, this is a beautiful campus and town, but I’ve really felt the ability to feel safe and wanted on campus,” said Caleb, an Alaska Native.

Sam Bailey said that attending college far away would be beneficial for his son. He believes that the experience of living and studying in a new environment would foster personal growth, independence, and resilience.

“We’ve encouraged him to leave Alaska and see what else is out there,” Sam Bailey said.

During the event, several current and former FLC students shared their experiences with the high schoolers and their families.

Naomi Bluehouse, a 19-year-old freshman and pre-med major at FLC, said it was a bit of culture shock coming from her small hometown on the Navajo Nation in Arizona to Durango. For the first few weeks, she stayed in her dorm and was nervous to socialize.

However, she gradually began to feel more comfortable, particularly after becoming involved in several campus clubs focused on Native American culture and community. These clubs provided her with a sense of belonging and connection to her roots, easing her adjustment to college life, she said.

“I’m definitely an introvert, but this place has really brought me out of my shell,” she said. “I know some of you are scared and nervous, but over time you ease into living here, and it really does become home.”

Sydney Randleman, a 19-year-old freshman majoring in psychology at FLC, noted a stark contrast in cultural diversity between her hometown near Tulsa, Oklahoma, and her new college. Coming from a place with limited cultural diversity, Randleman, a member of the Muscogee Nation, was pleasantly surprised to find that FLC boasts a wide variety of tribes and individuals from various backgrounds. She said this diverse community at FLC provided her with a broader perspective and a more inclusive educational experience. Heather Shotton, vice president of Diversity Affairs

“I’m 12 hours from home, which is a lot for me,” she said. “But coming here is so worth it. There’s a niche for everyone; you can definitely find your people and get involved in what you’re interested in.”

This advice resonated with Zyann Wiliams, a 17-year-old high school student from the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation west of Tucson, Ariz. Interested in entrepreneurship and digital marketing, Williams was recommended to check out FLC by her high school teacher, who believed the college could offer her the resources and opportunities to achieve her goals.

“I’m nervous myself, so it was great to see and hear from other people who went through this, too,” she said.

Her mother, Abbileigh Morris, expressed pride as Williams prepares to be her first child to attend college. Morris was particularly heartened by the diversity and representation of students from various tribal backgrounds at the college, seeing it as a positive indicator of the supportive and inclusive environment her daughter could be joining.

“It really does give you peace of mind,” Morris said. “It means a lot to see other kids who are shy and quiet find community here.”

Veronica Lane, an FLC alumni, shared with the audience her experience from approximately 15 years ago when she embarked on her college journey. Coming from the Navajo Nation, her parents drove her to the campus, dropped her off, and then left. As a first-generation college student, Lane said she had no idea what to expect from college life and lacked a support network to turn to with her questions.

“I didn’t even know I needed to buy books before the first class,” she said. “It was nerve-racking and scary, but it was also really exciting. I was from the rez, shy, but this place knocked it out of me the first week.”

Now, Lane is Vice President, Business Development Officer at Native American Bank.

“That would not have been possible without going to school here,” she said.

Prospective students and their families spent the rest of the day touring the campus and learning more about academic offerings. FLC even provided a financial aid resources workshop for students.

“Native American College Day is a chance to showcase that there is a community of support here at FLC,” Shotton said. “And that’s so important for a student’s success in college.”

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