LAWRENCE, Kan. - Haskell Indian Nations University, like colleges and universities across the country, has required classes for students although its Vision Quest may be a bit unusual.
Purpose of the one credit hour class is to teach students how to manage time, use proper study techniques, proper note-taking skills and effective communication. But in Barbara Cunningham's classes, Haskell students learn as well as teach each other about their own individual cultures.
The class has been in the curriculum for five years. "A lot of times students don't realize why they are in school," Cunningham said. "They know they need to go to school. They don't realize why."
She wanted them to understand that although students in her classes were all Native American or Alaska Natives, they all had very unique and diverse backgrounds.
"When non-Native people go to pow wows, they see a lot of pretty feathers, beautiful beadwork and intricate dance moves," Cunningham said. "They have absolutely no idea of why someone wears what they wear. Because Haskell has the goal or the vision to assimilate our culture into our classroom, ... I decided to have each student do a basic research.
"How do Native Americans carry on their traditions? By word of mouth. Every one of my students, whether they realize it or not, have sat with an elder, a tribal person, their parents, grandparents and they have heard stories.
"What I have asked them to do is to share those stories with me or they can share them with the rest of the class. The rest of the class learns something very unique about that individual's tribal background. They come to realize that every one of our tribes has a very beautiful and informative story of creation. That is basically what we do."
Students leave the class realizing that they are all connected, but they are also unique. Cunningham said students enjoy the class and she uses the stories when taking prospective students on tours of the campus.
"We usually go to the gazebo and we sit and chat and I tell the stories to them."
Groups of non-traditional students who attended a recent class given by Cunningham, all chose not to write their stories, but to use the old oral tradition and told their stories instead.
"The fact that to teach is to share," Cunningham said. "Just because you are the person in charge of the class doesn't mean that you are the only one who can teach something in that class. The teaching comes from everyone who is a class participant."
Cunningham also works in the Counseling Center at Haskell. She said the number one reason for visits in the first month of school is homesickness.
"The first week of school everyone is trying to test the waters. Mom and dad, grandma and grandpa aren't here. They are hundreds of miles away from home, they have some money and test the water, that is when they get into trouble."
By giving students a chance to talk about home and traditions, Cunningham gives them tools to forge their own identities within a new group of people. It is different from the identity they left at home, but the new identity may allow them to stand as individuals and not become a nameless face in the crowd. And the individual identity may help students say "no" when they need to and to make smart choices, she said.
"We, as Haskell employees, it doesn't matter if we're facilities, resident hall people, instructional people. I grew up with the concept that it takes a village to raise the child. Haskell's village has to guide our students. That means everybody on this campus. Your jobs don't just begin at 8 o'clock in the morning and end at 5. Until that student crosses the stage and gets that piece of paper, our job isn't over with."
This year she plans to take photographs of all of her students in a cap and gown to remind them that the final goal is a diploma and that is why they are attending Haskell.
"It is a matter of choices, they choose to attain that goal or they choose not to," Cunningham concluded.