Rocket Science

Jim Larimore | Comanche | Native Recruitment Officer | Dean of the College | 1983 - 1985, 1999-2006

Jim was the “Black Sheep” in his family. Whereas his older brother Bob, older sister Karen, and his younger sister Colleen poured over their coursework and excelled in school, Jim was a little less interested in school in his younger years. One semester, he even came home from college with the plastic shrink wrap still on some of his textbooks. He was a “late bloomer” who hit his stride academically as a junior at East Texas State University (ETSU) and later earned a graduate degree at Stanford. Jim knew he wasn’t like his siblings, that’s why he was surprised when Colleen, who in 1983 was an undergraduate student at Dartmouth, suggested that he apply for an open position in Dartmouth Admissions as a Native Recruitment Officer. He was fresh out of college and didn’t think Dartmouth would want a guy like him.

“My younger sister was a straight A student. Never a minute of worry for my parents,” Jim said. “I was about the opposite. But Colleen said, ‘You should think about this.’”

According to Colleen, Jim could talk to rocks. He’s that personable. Back home, he’d annoy the whole family with his charisma; he’d wake up in the morning singing – before anyone else had even had a cup of coffee. He has an energy about him that people adore. And he has a way of getting people interested in things to which they had never before given a second thought. Colleen had a strong feeling Jim was the person Dartmouth needed, if their goal was to build bridges between Native communities and the world of higher education.

At the time that Dartmouth hired Jim, there were just a few Indigenous communities in the United States that admissions officers from Dartmouth visited, including the Cherokee community in North Carolina and the Navajo reservation in the southwest. When Jim started, there were around ten Native students in each class. Just under three years later, when Jim left Dartmouth admissions, there were around thirty five Native students in each class. The first thing Jim did when he started in November of 1983 was expand the range of Native recruitment efforts.

“There was a tremendous amount of goodwill in the admissions office,” Jim said. “There was not a great understanding of how to put together a larger recruitment plan. I think things had settled into a pattern that had become really comfortable. The person who went out from admissions tended to visit the same places every year, which I thought was not a great way to get students from parts of the country where no one has even heard of Dartmouth.”

Jim went to the College library to research census data on Native tribes – tried to get a sense of who was living where. He put together information about Urban Indian populations, which were typically overlooked. At a time when race was defined by black and white, Urban Indians were invisible in the schools. Non-Natives struggled to identify Native people, and as a result, Native students went without much attention or support. Jim found those students. He made a list of places – urban, rural, and reservation – to visit, as well as persuaded a few of his fellow admissions officers to visit urban schools that enrolled Native students on their own recruitment trips. His intention was to spread the word as broadly as possible that Native students should consider applying to this school called Dartmouth.

“[On recruiting trips] I travelled a lot more than my predecessors had – up to eleven weeks in the fall,” Jim said. “I was a single young man at the time, so I had time. It took some effort, but it wasn’t rocket science either, so why the heck hadn’t this been done before?”

As an undergrad at ETSU, Jim was one of many first-generation students. He noticed there that a lot of his peers knew how to get into college, but few of them knew how to get through college. He drew insight from that, thinking about the support and advice he might have benefited from, once.

“We want students to come, which is a big step. It's a different part of the country, it’s a supportive community, but it’s a place that isn’t separate from hostility. It’s not like we’re offering a weekend at Disney World,” he said. “So it’s a reciprocal relationship [between Dartmouth admissions and Native communities]: if you will trust us enough to send some of your best and brightest people, we will do everything that we can possibly do to take care of them, to show them a sense of belonging, show them the ropes.”

After Dartmouth, Jim took a job as an Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Stanford, where he advised Native students and began to build a network of supportive colleagues in other offices, including the admissions office. Meanwhile, Colleen moved into his position in the Dartmouth admissions office, and Dartmouth and Stanford began sharing recruitment resources. Initially, the Dean’s on each campus were hesitant; they didn't want to share their secrets with an institution they saw as their competitor. Jim and Colleen convinced the two admissions offices that it’s a tag-team effort.

“Ultimately the goal is to get as many Native students into college as you possibly can, where they choose to go is their business,” Jim said. “If we both do better, everyone is going to win, right? Students will have more options, we'll have more students. And if students decide, you know, as they sometimes do, that they wanted to stay closer to home, because they have good reasons to want to stay closer to home, then so be it, you know, then those would be students who might tell their own children or might tell the other people in their community about this other place that they might consider at some point.”

Years later, around the time of the first Apple computers, Jim and Colleen teamed up again to put together an online database of recruitment resources. They applied for a grant from the Intel Foundation and received funding. They decided to give this information away to every college in the country that was interested in recruiting more Native students.

During his time as an admissions officer, Jim felt as if all things were possible. Greg Prince, who at the time worked in the provost office, was generous with his time and advice, and it seemed, Jim thought, that Greg cared a lot about the health of the Native community. Jim was also given an incredible amount of freedom for a man in his early twenties. Other admissions officers listened to him and took his advice – like when he told admissions officers that they needed to know the name of the NAP director. Otherwise, if someone asked, and they didn’t know, it would look like they only cared about student’s recruitment and not their success, and the students and their families would perceive a disconnect on campus.

Later, when Jim returned to Dartmouth as the Dean of the College, he resumed his work more broadly to connect different corners of campus. In 1999, Jim Wright had just been appointed president, and Jim Larimore thought he might like to work under him, as it seemed to him that Jim Wright understood the value of the Native community at Dartmouth. Earlier in his career, Jim Wright had played a key role in the establishment of Native American Studies at Dartmouth. As Dean of the College, Jim worked on creating relationships between student groups on campus. But first, the NAP needed strengthening – Native students needed more support. So, he established the Office of Pluralism and Leadership (OPAL), which was his way of saying that “you can’t have intercultural engagement without having strong cultural support,” and reflected his belief that in the twenty-first century, one cannot be an effective leader without supporting diversity and inclusion. His intention was to supply the Native Program with a broader collection of offices that would extend Indigenous reach and support across campus.

“I wanted Native students to feel like the entire campus was theirs. Not every resource had to be provided through the Native American Program, and they should feel comfortable going into any office on campus and expecting to be seen and appreciated for who they are.”

At Stanford, Jim noticed that it worked out well for the NAP and Native students to have allies outside of the NAP, especially within the student body. But during his time at Dartmouth, he received some backlash from alumni for Dartmouth’s offering that cultural support.

“Folks would point to the NAP and ask, why do we need that? Students didn’t need these resources, so why can’t we go back to the old days where students were expected to take care of themselves?,” Jim said. “But that never really worked.”

Nonetheless, many of the people Jim worked with at Dartmouth were receptive of and adapted to the changes he suggested, and the recruitment officers who have come to Dartmouth since his leaving continue to expand the program. When Jim thinks back on his time at Dartmouth, he thinks of a Maya Angelou quote that goes something like, “You did the best you could with what you knew. And when you knew better, you did better.”