Colleen’s brother, Bob, is eleven years older than her, and very much her role model. He was the first member of their extended family to attend college – their father had graduated from the eighth grade, their mother from high school, Bob from Syracuse University. Her whole life, Colleen watched how hard Bob worked in school, and she knew that’s what it would take to succeed academically.
When it came time for Colleen to look at colleges, it was Bob who suggested she consider Dartmouth – a school he’d always been interested in himself. Colleen had never heard of it. So he drove Colleen and her mom up to New Hampshire for a tour of the campus. Colleen remembers the way he asked questions she would never have thought to ask. After the tour, they walked around campus while Bob accosted Dartmouth students – asking questions about where they went to high school, what it was like, if Dartmouth was significantly harder than high school, what the workload was like for Dartmouth classes. Colleen was mortified, but she got a good sense of what Dartmouth would be like if she got in. And after seeing campus, she thought the small town, rural setting was something she could handle. She left that trip feeling certain she wanted to go to Dartmouth.
Her freshman year, NAP director Grace Newell “scooped all of [the NADs] up like little ducklings.” Grace was like an older sister – she had a “wicked” sense of humor, and she had been through Dartmouth before. She connected the NADs and kept them moving. During Colleen’s time at Dartmouth, it was typical for about half of the NAD class to drop out. Grace was upfront with the incoming class about that.
“It was stunning to hear,” Colleen said. “Possibly only half of us would make it and everybody's looking around at each other like Holy crap, what are we in for? And we found out very quickly.”
Academically, Colleen floundered for her first two years. She struggled to keep up with the fast pace of her classes. But by her junior year, she had decided on a sociology major, and found an advisor whom she loved and admired – Deborah King. She thought professor King was brilliant and funny. She would later write Colleen’s recommendation letters for grad school. Colleen graduated after four years with Honors and with the highest GPA in her major.
The retention rate issue was part of what motivated Colleen to later become NAP director. Right after graduating, Colleen’s older brother, Jim, suggested she apply for his position in the admissions office as he was leaving for Stanford. Her first year in that position, she recruited the class of 1990. It was a big, strong, diverse class of Native students, and the entire Native community was excited to welcome them to campus. But by the end of their first winter term, nearly one third of the class had dropped out – either due to homesickness, or because they were “too great,” Colleen said. A lot of them came in moving fast, starting with difficult math and science courses – many of them wanted to do pre-med or engineering, and got mowed down in the prerequisite, “gatekeeper” courses. From her position in the admissions office, Colleen didn’t know what had happened to all of those students – what had caused them to leave.
“I just remember thinking at that point, as an admissions officer, we've got to do better,” Colleen said. “It can't be a revolving door, you can't invite them in, take their money or take their tribe’s money, and just usher them out the back door at the end of fall or winter term. It's just not right.”
She left to get her masters degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and then she returned to Dartmouth to work as the NAP director in 1990. In that position, Colleen found that a lot of the reason for dropouts within the Native community was homesickness as well as academics, and, of course, culture shock. Rather than starting the year telling the students they probably won’t make it, she told them Dartmouth was probably going to be the hardest thing they’ve done in their life so far, so get ready. And she told them how to get ready – who their resources were, which people on campus could help Native students, what kinds of things they needed to pay attention to. Colleen reached beyond the NAP to recruit faculty and administration who could be allies for Native students on campus. Jim Freedman, for example, was the president of the college at the time; he didn’t have experience with Native American education or culture but he was interested in helping Colleen create more space for Native students on campus. In the early nineties, Dartmouth had a reputation among the Ivies for being a little backwards – “anti-intellectual,” Freedman called it, meaning their students “could be so well rounded so as to lose their point.”
“You play sports, you do well in school, you join a club, you're the president of this and that, but you have no purpose, you have no drive for the greater good. And that was [Freedman’s] whole thing. He wanted people who were oddballs, the people who were intellectuals, and people who love to play cello, who loved to translate Latin, who love to do all these bizarre things,” Colleen said. “[Him and I] were able to connect at that level, because he appreciated that [Native] students were very different as compared to most other students. And he could appreciate that from an intellectual level and from a social perspective. He wasn't like Jim Wright, who came after, who really was connected to the Native community at Dartmouth because he was a history professor before he became president. But [Freedman] did make a good connection to us. And he didn't stand in our way. He held the door open when we found openings.”
Colleen found that once students made it to their sophomore year, they were likely to graduate. So, she focused mainly on trying to get freshman NADs through their first year on campus. Her second year as director, she applied for a grant from the General Mills Foundation – with the money from this grant, Colleen started the “Full Circle Program.” Along with providing funding from this program to help students bring their cultural practices to campus – such as sweat lodges and drum groups – she recruited upperclassmen to mentor underclassmen. The upperclassmen mentors received counselors training at Dick’s house to do so. She also instated tutoring groups to help students with math and science. Furthermore, Colleen kept an “emergency fund” for students, just in case they needed to go home for any reason. If a student was feeling severely homesick to the point where they might drop out, she could arrange to send them home for just a few days, rather than them having to take significant time off from school. And she established an “Elders-in-Residence” program, where the NAP would bring cultural and spiritual leaders to campus.
“That was a huge part of what was missing, I think, from what they were used to,” Colleen said. “[That’s] what they yearn for with the homesickness part of things. So we brought in people from their home communities. People’s relatives came and stayed with us and did things with the students.”
Colleen noticed a trend among Native students – that many Native students didn’t start classes on time because of issues with their financial aid. Students needed aid to pay for textbooks and supplies, and when their money finally did arrive, they were already behind in their classes – sometimes by two to three weeks. In a ten week academic term, that was disastrous for a lot of them. Colleen went to collect data herself. She stood outside of the registrar's office and the financial aid office and counted the number of students who were not able to start classes, and found that one third of those students were Native. She brought that data to the financial aid office, and the NAP and financial aid worked together to make sure that Native students turned in all of their paperwork prior to the first day of the term.
During Colleen's three years as NAP director, the Native graduation rate rose from 65% in 1990 to 75% in 1993. Since leaving the NAP, she’s received her PhD from UC Berkeley, and now she lives back in Hanover, working in admissions at the Geisel school of Medicine.
“I see all the potential [Dartmouth has],” Colleen said. “I see all the good in it. And I see what wonderful things it's done for some people. But I also see the disservice it's done to others, who’re scarred by the whole experience. Overall, I think it's worth it. It's got great potential. But I think there's still a long way to go. They know what to do. Or they should know, they should know, by now, what to do.”