Drawing From the Same Well

A registered member of the Six Nations Cayuga American Indian tribe, Jarrid Whitney has spent 15 years in college admissions, enrollment and financial aid. He has specialized in recruiting American Indian students for elite institutions like Stanford University and Dartmouth College—quite a departure from his childhood in an upstate New York town of 1,300 that lacked a high school, meaning young people were bused to one of three neighboring towns. A Cornell University graduate, Whitney is now director of undergraduate admissions at the California Institute of Technology, where 9 percent of this school year’s 967 undergraduates were American Indian, Black, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Alaska Native or Hispanic.

 

DI: What “best practices” can colleges use to retain American Indian students?

JW: Students who are culturally connected with their people prioritize the tribal calendar above academics. They attend the tribe’s winter blessing and feast days no matter what’s scheduled on a school syllabus. Professors need to let them take exams on days that don’t conflict with cultural activities. That said, students should tell professors and diversity officers of these activities well in advance. Students without much cultural connection won’t likely miss class, but they often want to learn about their heritage. If the campus has no American Indian program, the diversity center should support their interest.

 

Just because there isn’t an Indian administrator doesn’t mean people don’t want to help you.

 

DI: Six Nations Cayuga doesn’t have a reservation in New York, so how did you learn about your heritage growing up?

JW: We drove to the reservation in Ontario for seasonal events and the annual powwow. My mom wanted to expose my brother and me to the culture; she lived on a reservation as a young girl.

 

DI: How does American Indian life inform your counseling and recruitment of high school students?

JW: I tell them college applications are like tribal dances, and it’s important to learn dance steps. They need a dance partner—a college—that’s a good fit. Dance offers opportunity for individual expression, just like a college application does through personal essays.

 

I encourage them to describe tribal activities on their applications, especially if they don’t do many extracurricular (activities) on campus. Let’s say they spend lots of time making pottery or weaving rugs, which are sold to raise money for their tribes. That’s unique. And colleges want diversity.

 

I’m finishing my first year at Caltech, and, while we’re currently less than 1 percent Indian, I’m hopeful we’ll improve in the fall.

 

DI: What is the biggest nonacademic hurdle to recruiting American Indians to elite universities?

JW: Because Indians are the minority among minorities at almost every U.S. campus, it’s a challenge convincing them there’s adequate support. Tribes aren’t used to youth going far away either. There’s also the painful history of the government shipping Indians to boarding schools many years ago, forcing them to abandon their culture.

 

DI: Why did you choose this career?

JW: Growing up on a farm, I applied to Cornell knowing it was a veterinary and agriculture school but not what “Ivy League” meant. I was among freshmen in a summer program for underrepresented groups at Cornell. Expectations ran high; it was intimidating. Yet peer counselors and academic advisers assured us we deserved to be there. They built my confidence, and I wanted to pay back what they did for me.