Wabanaki Bates-Bowdoin-Colby Collaborative

When’s a good time to start talking to children about going to college? The Wabanaki Bates-Bowdoin-Colby Collaborative thinks it’s never too early; the innovative educational partnership begins its effort with fourth graders.

The collaborative brings three of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country together – Maine’s Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges – and the four Wabanaki tribes – the Penobscots, the Maliseets, the Passamaquoddy and the Micmacs – in a unique two-way educational partnership that aims to increase the number of Indian students attending colleges while expanding knowledge and understanding about Maine’s indigenous people in the college communities.

The collaborative was officially created in May 2007 when the college presidents held a historic meeting with Wabanaki leaders at the Penobscot Tribal Council Chambers on Indian Island.

But the project began in 2006 when Paul Bisulca, the Penobscot chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, was looking for more educational opportunities for Wabanaki students. One initiative under consideration was the creation of a tribal college, but that proposal faded due to a lack of funding.

At the same time, Bisulca was talking with Kassie Freeman, a former Bowdoin associate dean, about higher education for Wabanaki students.

“I told her I really wanted to get more Indian kids into her school, because Indian retention in colleges is so bad, especially when they go out of state.

“The University of Maine has a tuition waiver for Wabanaki students, but while they do great things there, our kids need to have more options, and these three colleges – Bates, Bowdoin and Colby – are first-class schools. I said we needed to make them available to our students. Then I asked Jim Sappier, who was chief of Penobscot at the time, if he wanted to go to the colleges and make a pitch with me.”

Bisulca and Sappier met with two of the college presidents and some of their staff at Bowdoin College in 2006 and the discussion moved forward.

In a little more than six months, the historic meeting between college and tribal leadership took place and the collaborative was born.

An auspicious beginning

The State of Maine is not known for having a progressive attitude toward its indigenous people. In fact, tribal-state relations deteriorated so badly that the Penobscot Nation last year severed its relationship with the state. So it’s particularly meaningful that the partnership developed against the backdrop of the state’s intransigent refusal to pass legislation acknowledging the indigenous nations’ inherent sovereignty or allowing the economic development that would promote the nations’ self-sufficiency.

“I think the stars were aligned in the sense that you had three college presidents taken with this partnership notion, we had leaders of the tribes, and the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission who saw this opportunity and it all came together, and now you’ve got three committee people on our campuses who are committed and our students are flocking to these notions,” said Janice Kassman, Colby’s special assistant to the president for external affairs.

Unlike the University of Maine, the three private colleges have need-based financial aid programs and, therefore, cannot state outright that all Wabanaki students will be given a tuition waiver.

“However, the presidents made it clear to the tribal chiefs that based on what we know about the income levels of the Maine Native Americans, we believe that they would qualify for substantial amounts of aid. It’s just that we can’t make a carte blanche statement that every student would get a full free ride, but practically speaking, we believe that’s what will happen.” She said student aid could be as much as $50,000 a year for tuition and expenses.

Kassman said the faculty plays an important role in the partnership.

“The faculty of each of our campuses, who were looking at issues of underrepresented people and social justice issues, started looking in our own backyard.” They found a sizeable underrepresented population in the number of Wabanaki students who don’t make it to college.

A three-pronged approach

Kassman and her colleagues have developed a three-pronged approach to achieve their mission of recruiting more Wabanaki students to the colleges while expanding the college communities’ knowledge of Wabanaki history and culture.

The first approach is the Early College Awareness program, which involves students in fourth through eighth grades. For the past two years, teams of BBC students have visited the Indian students in elementary school classrooms and communities, introducing them to the idea that going to college is a good thing.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that often the Wabanaki students don’t graduate from high school, so that encouraged us to start with the very young children to plant the seeds of attending college in their minds when they’re in elementary school, so they’ll have a desire to go on to college,” said Marylynn Scott, director of multicultural recruitment and associate dean for student transition at Bates.

The BBC students prepare intensively for their visits, which take place over spring break. They attend panel sessions and briefings with Wabanaki leaders. Sappier, who chairs the Wabanaki Education Committee, which represents all four nations, said the non-Native students need training before they visit the reservations.

“We treat them as if they don’t know anything about the reservations or culture or etiquette. I think it’s an excellent program, and the reality is this is the first generation of our tribal members who will be getting into higher education. Between 85 and 90 percent of our tribal members have not gone to college,” Sappier said.

The college students also work with faculty members to prepare the curriculum they will present to young Indian students. They use art projects, games, discussions and humor to engage them.

The second program brings Wabanaki high school students and their counselors to the colleges for overnight visits and a day of campus tours, workshops on the application process, academic offerings, campus activities and college life.

The third program aims at improving the campus climate at the colleges to support Native cultural and academic activities and increase awareness and understanding of Wabanaki history and contemporary issues in the college communities.

John Dieffenbacher Krall, MITSC executive director, said the collaborative is far reaching and worthy of support.

“Fifty years ago in Maine, Wabanaki kids were automatically shunted to a vocational-technical track. They were thought of as future wood workers, factory workers, fishermen. They were never thought of as college students. Who knows how many potential intellectual giants were stifled because of that?”

He said the collaborative effort will also benefit the colleges.

“These schools are and view themselves as some of the most elite academic institutions in the U.S., yet they are missing chief things in their curriculum about indigenous peoples. What do you think is taught about the Doctrine of Discovery, which was the intellectual underpinning of European colonialism of the western hemisphere? Probably nothing. That’s where the Wabanaki can fill in these big holes by inviting Native scholars and guest lecturers to give talks and workshops

and presentations.”

The WBBC is indeed a two-way relationship, Scott said. The schools clearly want to enroll and graduate Wabanaki students.

“But the other part is to educate and enlighten our schools about Wabanaki culture, history and the current issues they face, and hopefully to inspire many of the students and faculty members to collaborate with the Wabanaki to address those issues. It’s definitely a relationship of reciprocity.”