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SMU Cox School hopes to woo Native American students

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, Reporter: One hundred miles south of the Canadian border, in a small lake country town, Vern Barsness was having trouble hiring a business development specialist.

Vern Barsness, Economic Development Director, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe: In the end we ended up interviewing six people, which is the total amount that we had apply for the position and out of those not one of them had a business degree.

Sprague: Barsness is the economic development director for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Business specialists are typically the hardest jobs the tribe has to fill.

Barsness: Technical skills, business degree, financial and accounting is around here is pretty much non-existent.

Sprague: Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department cited business education as a way tribal members across the U.S. could improve their access to loans and entrepreneurship. But less than one percent of business students are Native American. Enter Southern Methodist University and Adjunct Professor Steve Denson.

Steve Denson, SMU Cox School of Business: We're preparing a few programs that will help students learn to bridge the worlds between native and non-native America.

Sprague: Denson is also the director of student services at SMU's Cox School of Business and a citizen of the Chickasaw nation. He recently received university approval to launch an aggressive recruitment program that will target Native American students from Oklahoma, where there are large tribal populations.

Denson: We're going to assist the students in transitioning from a rural to an urban environment. We're going to provide support they would lack leaving a Native American community and we're also going to maintain those ties with their community.

Sprague: There are no Native American students at the Cox School. But Denson hopes there will be four two years from now. That may seem small, but Charles Blackwell, the Chickasaw ambassador to the United States, believes it will make a difference.

Charles Blackwell, Chickasaw Ambassador: Some of these people who graduate, they may go back to the reservation level to work. They may go to Wall Street or any place in between, but it doesn't matter. They're going to be going someplace where we probably haven't had an Indian before. And that's a contribution.

Sprague: Still, there remains some hesitation. Although the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations of Oklahoma have endorsed the effort, Choctaw Executive Education Director Joy Culbreath anticipates some concerns from the mostly rural, close-knit Choctaw population.

Joy Culbreath, Choctaw Executive Education Director: And, I think, sometimes, with someone who is even more culturally minded than I am, that they do not want to see their children, first of all, to leave home. Second of all, they do not want them ever to lose their heritage. They want them to always remember where they came from and who they are.

Sprague: Steve Denson says SMU will be sensitive to that. And, he adds the Cox School is developing a course called "Doing Business in Indian Country" to teach tribal customs and regulations to both native and non-native students. Denson will meet with leaders of the Creek Nation next month for their endorsement and hopes the recruitment efforts will be in full swing by this time next year. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.

To contact Suzanne Sprague, please send emails to ssprague@kera.org.