Fewer than one in 1,000 students at Rutgers University’s three campuses is Native—a disparity a grassroots group of students, professors and a Native chaplain from Canada is trying to remedy.
Rutgers, one of nine colonial colleges that existed before the American Revolution, was founded in 1766 and now is ranked among the world’s top 60 universities. The state university of New Jersey, Rutgers also is known for its diversity, yet only about 60 of its 65,000 undergraduate and graduate students are Native.
Rutgers was founded as one of nine colonial colleges in 1766 and became The State University of New Jersey in 1956.
That’s not good enough, said Keith Ross, executive director of the Native American Welcome Center, a small organization on the New Brunswick campus that is dedicated to recruiting and retaining Native students.
“We have all these students at Rutgers and a least some of them want an education so they can go back and serve in their Native communities in the health sector or as teachers or in economics,” Ross said. “We’re here to support them.”
Ross, a chaplain for the Reformed Church in America, is a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, of Saskatchewan. A first-generation high school graduate, Ross went on to finish college and theological school before being ordained and assigned to Rutgers to minister to Natives.
When Ross got to New Brunswick, the largest of the university’s three campuses, he found a Native student population that was scattered and at times marginalized. With help from about 10 Native students, Ross started the Native American Welcome Center in October 2013.
One of those students, Kaila Lim, was just getting reacquainted with her Native background. Lim, a 20-year-old junior studying economics, is Korean and Acoma Pueblo, but grew up mainly in New Jersey.
During her senior year of high school, Lim visited the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, arriving in time for Feast Day. There, she discovered home.
“When I heard the drums, they spoke to me,” she said. “When I close my eyes, that sound is what home is for me.”
Kaila Lim, a Rutgers junior, is Korean and Acoma Pueblo, but grew up mainly in New Jersey.
Lim chose Rutgers for its academic standards—not for its Native programs.
“There wasn’t anything appealing about Rutgers from the Native perspective,” she said. “They promote diversity and they’re known as one of the most diverse campuses in the country, but there’s really nothing for Natives.”
By contrast, Lim said, she found as many as a dozen Korean cultural groups. She worked with the Native American Welcome Center as a way to fill the gap for future students.
The center, located near the middle of the campus, is a space for Native students to gather, connect with each other and deepen their cultural attachments, said Richard Murray, assistant director of marketing and communications for undergraduate admissions at Rutgers. It also is aggressively recruiting students from New Jersey’s three state-recognized tribes: Lenni Lenape, Ramapough Lenape and Powhatan. Two local Native students will join the student population next fall.
Despite the need, however, a Native-friendly Rutgers is not unprecedented, Murray said. A quarter of a century ago, Rutgers boasted one of the best Native American Studies programs in the U.S. It attracted Native students from across the country, but it gradually died out after its founder left.
Murray believes the Native American Welcome Center can help right past wrongs. Rutgers was built nearly 250 years ago on land that once belonged to the Lenape.
“It’s highly ironic that we have so few Native students here,” he said. “We are trying to make things more right. We can’t do anything about the past but we can do something about the future by providing education and support to them.”
Lim said she wants to see Rutgers “get loud” with recruiting and growing its Native presence.
“I want to see nationwide recruiting,” she said. “I want Natives from the Southwest—from Acoma—to know about Rutgers. I think culture is huge and if the university can talk to tribes or universities that do well with Natives, they could offer more of a cultural spectrum.”