Editor's note: This story has been updated since its first publishing.

Virginia Tech is reaching out to Native American communities by tapping into one of its greatest resources: its students.

The undergraduate and graduate students who make up Native at Virginia Tech have brought a new energy to the university, organizing spring powwows in 2017 and 2018. Now, that vibrance has spread, and the university is looking to build on it. Admissions has targeted talented African American and Hispanic high school students, and now is working to develop more robust, lasting relationships with the Indigenous communities that call Virginia home.

The Virginia Tribal Initiative is the newest effort to recruit more Native students, building on an older program, Virginia Indians Pre-college Outreach Initiative (VIPCOI). As part of the initiative, the university is leveraging recent alumni to assist in the effort, including Lee Lovelace ’09, who was a leader in VIPCOI from his time as a student until 2013, and Mae Hey, who received her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech in 2017 and is an InclusiveVT Faculty Fellow.

The Virginia Tribal Initiative is built on the energy that current and former Native students have brought to Virginia Tech. The group of graduate and undergraduate students now part of Native at Virginia Tech has grown in size and presence, especially since the creation of the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center in Squires Student Center has given them a permanent home.

That physical space is a place where students from around the world can congregate and find community.

“Coming to the East Coast was a culture shock in a lot of ways,” said Nizhoni Tallas, a sophomore natural resources and conservation major from the Navajo Nation in Arizona. “Not being able to find people who understood where I was coming from was difficult. One of the main things I’ve seen that’s changed is that having this center has given us a focal point to find each other. It’s been really awesome. It’s amazing how much has changed since 2015.”

“This is our family,” said Qualla Jo Ketchum, a citizen of the Cherokee ( ᏣᎳᎩ ) Nation who is seeking her doctoral degree in biological systems engineering. “The majority of us in the group are not from Virginia. This group is really our place to be grounded. This is our home away from home.”

The group has played an increasingly active role on campus, organizing powwows in 2017 and 2018, and now promoting a full slate of events in October for Native American Heritage Month. Jason Chavez, a senior political science major, said the group wants to create a campus-wide conversation.

“It allows us to have that opportunity to talk with others on campus about what it means to be Indigenous,” Chavez said. “We’re not relegated to the past. We’re walking to academic buildings with you and taking classes with you. We’re sitting and studying with you. We’re sharing the same experiences. We’re not this other. I think we have great opportunities to have that conversation.”

Now, the student group’s work is influencing the university’s recruitment of new students.

Lovelace, now working as tribal outreach liaison with undergraduate admissions, and Hey, Indigenous community liaison, and students in Native at VT travel around the state to visit Virginia tribes at festivals, powwows, and other events. They participate in a cultural exchange that flows in both directions. The students are building connections with Virginia tribes while also acting as ambassadors for Virginia Tech. By engaging with Native middle and high-schoolers during these visits, they’re demonstrating the talented students that Tech attracts, while also modeling the college experience for young people who may be the first individual from their family to go to college.

“Rather than tell people about programs, it’s more effective to bring students with me,” Hey said. “There are a couple of reasons: One, I went to school here forever, but still don’t know much about the state. I want our students to fall in love with the state. And two, it’s better to show Native people how awesome our students are rather than talk about it. Also, if students or Native people come up to visit us, they know people here. When I ask about why students come to Virginia Tech, there’s usually some kind of foothold here.”

That’s been the case in the past, too, including for Lovelace, a member of the Upper Mattaponi tribe whose sister, Crystal Lovelace ’03, had already attended Tech. When his chief told him about a pre-college outreach initiative on campus, Lee Lovelace took the opportunity. He toured various departments, met with professors, and was paired with a student who served as a mentor while Lovelace was in high school. That led to his successful application and, eventually, a marketing management degree from the Pamplin College of Business.

During his senior year, Lovelace participated in a Native American conference at Virginia Tech that also included students and leaders from the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary.

“There was sort of an amazing moment when I was surrounded by all of these powerful Native people,” Lovelace said. “They were telling me how there’s not a Native American student organization at Virginia Tech. They were looking to me to start that and be the president for it. I had never considered that.”

Lovelace moved forward with the club, which became the organization now known as Native at Virginia Tech. As his senior year came to a close, he was offered an internship handling Native outreach for the Student Success Center. That summer he went to every powwow in the commonwealth, setting up a table with college information.

“So many students would be first generation; they’d be the first in their family to go to college,” Lovelace said. “The hope was more of planting the seed of the idea in their head, hoping to keep a relationship with them and motivate them to go to college.”

After the internship ended, Virginia Tech’s academic leaders noted an upsurge in Native student enrollment and quickly moved to offer him a permanent job. For the next three years, Lovelace spearheaded the Virginia Indians Pre-college Outreach Initiative (VIPCOI), before eventually leaving in 2013 to go to work for Penn State University.

What brought him back was the energy that Native at Virginia Tech brought to campus.

“The student voices are super important and are an integral part of the outreach,” Lovelace said. “Last year when Virginia Tech posted its first powwow, it was almost entirely organized by current students in the Native at VT student organization. It was great to see so many students come together.”

Encouraged by Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity organized a tribal summit with many of Virginia’s tribal leaders and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. The discussion focused on Virginia Tech’s role with respect to the future of Virginia’s American Indian population, but it kept circling back to a nagging question: what happened to the university’s outreach efforts?

Those discussions continued until Native at VT organized a powwow on campus in 2017 and again in 2018. At the second event, Lovelace returned and met Hey. Their conversation turned to how the university could better engage with Virginia’s tribes. That’s the goal they’ve pursued since then, focused largely at first on re-connecting with Indigenous communities.

“It’s important to show that we’re back, but also bring the message that we’re not going to be a touch-and-go presence where we’re here for five years and then there’s a cycle when we’re gone,” Lovelace said. “Our ultimate goal is to build more connections with the next generation of tribal members and tribal youth, to help them along the way and help inspire more students to go to college.”

By showing up at powwows, Virginia Tech officials and students build relationships and create sparks of imagination that plant seeds among young people in those tribes. Even if those future students don’t attend Virginia Tech, the experience is positive if it contributes to them attending college elsewhere. The powwow visits are just the beginning of a larger push to recruit Indigenous students. As Hey and Lovelace become more acquainted with Virginia’s tribal communities, they are inviting them to campus, as well as tailoring outreach to each community’s specific needs.

“We’re not creating things and just asking them to come, we’re being responsive to their wishes and needs,” said Alphonso Garrett, director of undergraduate diversity recruitment initiatives.

The effort reflects not only Virginia Tech’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), but its land-grant mission to serve the public. For too long, members of Virginia tribes were ignored or ill-treated by the state and federal governments. Six Virginia tribes—the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Nansemond Tribes, and Monacan Indian Nation—were only federally recognized in January of 2018. However, the Pamunkey tribe was recognized in 2016.

Virginia Tech’s rejuvenated outreach efforts not only honor those tribes and their long history, but also speak to President Tim Sands’ goal for 40 percent of Tech’s student body to be made up of underrepresented, first-generation, or lower-income students by 2022.

“Let’s not forget the fact that we have 11 tribal communities in this state, as well as the fact that Tech sits on Monacan Nation land,” said Melissa Faircloth, director of the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center,  whose work as a Diversity Scholar led to the powwows at Virginia Tech. “Those students should feel like this is their university, that there is opportunity here for them.”

“As a land grant university, those groups should be our mission,” Ketchum said. “The mission of a land grant is to provide education for those who were not allowed education before the land grant system, to reach out to those underserved communities. Originally that was poor white people, but the land grant mission has evolved. If we’re trying to fulfill our land grant mission, we can’t forget Virginia's tribal communities and the indigenous community as a whole."

— Written by Mason Adams

Share this story