ALLENDALE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Students, faculty, and alumni at Grand Valley State University spent Monday afternoon reflecting on the progress they have made in supporting the Native American campus community and the challenges they’re still working to overcome.

“So often, we’re actually the overlooked groups on campus,” said Levi Rickert, a member of GVSU’s Native American Advisory Council. “We’re such a small number of us, but truly I think the Native American Advisory Council has worked very hard to prod the university, the top administrators, to really push forward efforts to recruit and retain native students and not just retain them, but to get them to graduate.”

Over the years, the council’s goals have shifted from recruiting native students to providing support and making sure they’re understood and respected in the campus community.

“I’ve felt very supported,” GVSU senior Elliot Fair said.

Fair is the co-president of the Native American Student Association, which works with and shares similar goals to NAAC. It was NASA that was responsible for the university’s decision in 2018 to recognize the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In honor of the holiday, Fair gave a presentation on Native American culture in Michigan and the importance of the state’s natural resources. He believes it’s something everyone should learn about.

“If you want to bring this idea of culture, of … not just Western culture, but multiple cultures, it has to start young,” Fair explained.

Differences in culture are something NASA member Samantha Gann believes are a major challenge Native American students have to overcome when they get to college.

“Our students go through a lot of changes coming from different kinds of backgrounds, different households, reservations, city life,” she said. “We need mostly an understanding and support with other native students that, hey, I’m not alone in going through this.”

Lin Bardwell, a program coordinator with the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said GVSU now offers an orientation process to cover a lot of the things students might fear or be unsure of before coming to campus. With about 450 students at GVSU who identify as native, she said it’s important to speak up about any issues they’re facing so that NAAC can work on getting them addressed.

“We are always grateful for students who just want to bring voice and speak their truth because a lot of us in administration don’t really understand what boots on the ground students have to go through,” she said.