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Business School to Woo Native American Students - 2002-12-29

Of all high school graduates across the United States, Native Americans are among the least likely to get a college or graduate degree. But in Dallas, Texas, the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University is trying to counter that trend. As Suzanne Sprague reports, it's launched a new effort to court Native American students in what's believed to be the first such program in the nation.

An hour or so south of the Canadian border, in a small lake country town, Vern Barsness was having trouble hiring a business development specialist. "In the end, we ended up interviewing six people, which is the total amount that we had apply for the position; and out of those, not one of them had a business degree," Mr. Barsness said.

He is the economic development director for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. He said business specialists are typically the hardest jobs the tribe has to fill. "Technical skills, business degree, financial and accounting around here is pretty much non-existent," Mr. Barsness explained.

Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department cited business education as a way tribal members could improve their access to loans and entrepreneurship. But less than one percent of the students enrolled in business schools today are Native American. Enter Southern Methodist University.

"We're preparing a few programs that will help students learn to bridge the worlds between native and non-native America," says Professor Steve Denson, director of student services at SMU's Cox School of Business. He is a member of the Chickasaw nation. He recently received university approval to launch an aggressive recruitment program that will target Native American students from Oklahoma, where there are large tribal populations.

"We're going to assist the students in transitioning from a rural to an urban environment. We're going to provide support they would lack leaving a Native American community, and we're also going to maintain those ties with their community," Professor Denson said.

There are no Native American students at the Cox School now. But Professor Denson hopes he'll be able to recruit four over the next two years. That may seem small, but Charles Blackwell, the Chickasaw ambassador to the United States, believes it will make a difference.

"Some of these people who graduate, they may go back to the reservation level to work. They may go to Wall Street or any place in between, but it doesn't matter. They're going to be going someplace where we probably haven't had an Indian before. And that's a contribution," Mr. Blackwell said.

Still, there remains some hesitation. Although the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations of Oklahoma have endorsed the effort, Choctaw Executive Education Director Joy Culbreath anticipates some concerns from her tribe's mostly rural, close-knit population.

"And, I think, sometimes, with someone who is even more culturally minded than I am, that they do not want to see their children, first of all, to leave home. Second of all, they do not want them ever to lose their heritage. They want them to always remember where they came from and who they are," she said.

Steve Denson said Southern Methodist University will be sensitive to that. And, he added the Cox School is developing a course called "Doing Business in Indian Country" to teach tribal customs and regulations to both native and non-native students. Professor Denson is meeting with leaders of the Creek Nation this December for their endorsement and hopes the recruitment efforts will be in full swing by this time next year.