Preparing to Attend a Predominantly White University

Getting accepted into college is an impressive achievement and important milestone. However, for many Native people who aren’t attending a Tribal college or university, going to college means attending a school with a predominantly white student body. Although being the only Native student in certain classes can be challenging at times, there are things you can do to make sure college is a positive, fun experience.  

Know what resources are available to you  

Many universities have certain opportunities, staff, or locations uniquely available to Native students. For example, certain schools have entire dorms, student groups, and services just for Native students. You can learn about these opportunities by talking to an admissions counselor, or by seeing if your university has a dedicated webpage on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which often lists information and opportunities.  

Pro tip: there may also be scholarship opportunities available to you as a Native student. Talk to your financial aid office to make sure that you have your financial aid squared away and you’ve applied to as many scholarships as possible.  

Additionally, there may be opportunities for you to engage in research or community-based projects that center Tribes. To get a sense of work and internship opportunities focused on Native people, ask if your university has research initiatives that engage local Tribes. You might also see if there are professors or students working in areas of interest to you. Reach out and ask them what opportunities exist for you to explore.  

Build community   

Find out if there are any Native student organizations on campus. Student organizations are a great way to meet other Native people, attend fun events, participate in leadership opportunities, and meet potential mentors. Also, see if discipline-specific groups, like AISES or SACNAS, have chapters on your campus.  

If there are no Native student groups on your campus, consider starting one officially or unofficially. Building community – where we are understood and feel accepted – is important for our mental, physical, and spiritual health. Although starting an “official student group” could be a lot of work (and unpaid labor), it would help lay a foundation for yourself and future students. However, if you don’t have the capacity for this, consider starting rotating community events that others can help plan too. This might be a rotating dinner and hangout night with your Native friends, a once-a-month hike for Native students and staff, or a beading night at someone’s house or dorm.  

Consider what battles are worth fighting 

In predominately white spaces, there may be times when you are the only Native person in the room. This can be challenging. Sometimes peers and teachers may (inappropriately) ask you to explain your identity and be a representative of your people or Native people in general. In cases like these, you can choose to explain as much or little as you want. It is not your responsibility to educate others about your identity or be a representative for all Native people. After all, you are attending college to further your education, and it is okay to create healthy boundaries around how you choose to engage with non-Native people who look to you to explain your culture or act as an educator.  

Get expert help 

Staying balanced in mind, body, and spirit in college is important, especially while you are working hard. While you may face challenges, remember that you belong where you are at, and there are people who can help! Getting expert support might involve speaking with an Elder from back home regularly, chatting with a mental health counselor, or building a relationship with staff at the Native student center and sharing your experiences with them.  

Stay connected with home  

As much as you can, try to stay connected with home, or the things that help you feel grounded and connected to your culture. This could mean eating your traditional foods if you can, calling home to chat with your family, or practicing your language. Stay connected by seeing people in person when possible. Traveling back home and using virtual ways to connect with the broader Native community can help you feel connected to culture and inspired throughout your college journey.  

The take away  

There may not be many other people like you at your university – that just means these spaces need your perspective even more. College is an exciting phase of life. Balancing the academics and social aspects can be hard enough, and being in predominantly non-Native spaces can make that even harder at times. Be sure to take care of yourself along the way. Know that you are enough and there are resources and people out there that can help you thrive throughout your college experience.   


Author: McKalee Steen is a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and is currently a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management department. She is passionate about studying Indigenous land stewardship practices, providing resources for Indigenous youth, and the power of storytelling. 

Published: July 28th, 2023

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