SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota State University president Barry Dunn says he can see a future in which reservation hospitals and health centers across South Dakota employ pharmacists and lab scientists educated at his school, with doctors and administrators also trained at institutions in the state.
The land-grant university is pursuing a new initiative to increase the number of students at the school from the nine tribal nations in South Dakota, Dunn said Friday. The Wokini Initiative, bearing a Lakota word that means “new life” or “a new beginning,” is a top priority for Dunn, a Rosebud Sioux tribe member who took over as president about a year ago.
He said the goal of the initiative, which is in its early stages, is to dramatically improve educational opportunities for American Indian students from South Dakota. Dunn said the school aims to recruit high school students and tribal college graduates and provide financial assistance to help them attend South Dakota State University in Brookings.
The university had about 250 American Indian students enrolled in the fall 2016, a number Dunn would like to see climb to 1,000 or higher. It would be wonderful if the enrollment of American Indian students at South Dakota State reflected the state’s population, he said.
“This is an intentional, very intentional effort to reach a population that has been underserved by public higher education in a state that has a long and dramatic and many times tragic history of relationships with American Indians,” Dunn said. “It’s morally and ethically the right thing to do.”
Dunn said the initiative will offer tailored advising and counseling to help make sure that American Indian students who are recruited are successful. Part of the initiative calls for the construction of a stand-alone American Indian student center, which he said would serve as a “home away from home.”
Other aspects could include a push to preserve the Dakota and Lakota languages and the funding of collaborative research projects with tribes or tribal colleges on topics important to American Indian communities. A report to the Board of Regents says Wokini Initiative programs will be developed by university staff in collaboration with the tribes, their members and the four tribal colleges serving South Dakota.
The university plans to dedicate revenue from land-grant properties — roughly $600,000 each year — to the initiative to give it a sustainable funding source. Officials will also seek gifts and grants for the project, though no specific funding goal exists yet, Dunn said.
“Wokini will provide that stability and long-term commitment that won’t go away as leadership changes,” he said. “My goal is to institutionalize this effort so that it’s just part of who South Dakota State is in perpetuity.”
The school hopes to hire a director to focus on the project within the next month, and Dunn expects activity to pick up significantly in the fall. He said students could be recruited for the 2018 school year.
Alaina Hanks, a member of the White Earth Chippewa of Minnesota, is pursuing a graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling at South Dakota State. She said the American Indian Student Center has lacked money in the past and that the new initiative is a “clear step forward.”
“I think that putting resources into something that you care about is so different than just saying you care about something,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Troy Heinert, a Rosebud Sioux member, said that greater access to higher education for tribal members across the state is “how we’re going to change the communities from within.” When younger tribal members see their relatives and other American Indians in professional positions, it makes that goal seem more attainable, Heinert said.
Dunn said he’s pursuing the initiative in honor of his mother, who was born into poverty on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in 1921, before American Indians were U.S. citizens. She eventually earned a degree from Iowa State University, which gave her success and Dunn a middle-class upbringing.
“I want the benefits that my mother received to flow to all of those young people that have a similar story,” Dunn said.