Where Belonging Begins: Higher Education Students Lead SU’s Native Student Program

After nearly 33 years at Syracuse University, in October 2022 Regina A. Jones ’07, retired as Director of Syracuse University’s Native Student Program. She launched the program in 2006 along with Stephanie Waterman ’83, G’04, while simultaneously studying for her bachelor’s degree in Child and Family Studies.

The program remains in good hands.

Nicole Smoke standing with Bailey Tlachac
Nicole Smoke ’17, G’24, standing left of Bailey Tlachac G’23, says that the Native Student Program “solidified for me that not only could I succeed in an environment like this, but I also had support.”

Bailey Tlachac G’23 recently took the reins as Program Coordinator, also while completing her master’s in SOE’s Higher Education program. Tlachac, Oneida Bear Clan from Wisconsin, previously served as the program’s graduate assistant, a role now filled by another Higher Education graduate student: Nicole Smoke ’17, G’24, Mohawk Wolf Clan from Akwesasne, on the New York-Ontario border. We sat down with Tlachac and Smoke to discuss their roles, the School of Education’s M.S. in Higher Education, and their experiences on campus as Native students.

This story appears in the 2023 issue of Education Exchange.

Describe your work with the Native Student Program.

Bailey Tlachac: Last year, I served as the graduate assistant for the Native Student Program. Over the summer, I had worked in the Office of Multicultural Affairs as Graduate Coordinator, preparing and executing the Indigenous New Student Orientation. During this time, I also started preparing fall programming and Native Heritage Month events.

I started officially as Program Coordinator in the middle of September 2022, and it has been really exciting stepping into this new opportunity. I now oversee two graduate students—one is my graduate assistant, and the other is my academic consultant—while also overseeing one undergraduate intern.

The Native Student Program supports all Indigenous students on campus in many different ways. The program is housed in 113 Euclid and we are a home-away-from-home. We support our students in many different ways—we support them throughout their academics, provide career-readiness workshops, cultivate identity development, and offer support with social and emotional problems.

Nicole Smoke: In 2017, during my last year as an undergraduate student, I interned for Regina Jones. My project as a practicum student was to assess and evaluate the program to see what deficits there were and then determine what could be added to support students. After conducting focus groups with current students and alums, we realized the transition from high school to college took a toll on many students and had a major impact on their sense of belonging and academic success during the early stages of their college years.

I was able to implement a mentoring program, with the help of Jones, for Indigenous first year and transfer students, the Ionkerihonnienini Guide Program, which is the Mohawk word for “they teach us.” Before I graduated, we solidified the mission and how we wanted to connect freshmen and transfer students with upperclassmen. The program was implemented to support freshmen and transfer students in their transition into Syracuse University.

Since graduate assistants support this effort, now that I’m back, I get to run the program. I’ve come full circle.

All Higher Education students complete an immersive practicum at a local higher education institution—how did this experience enhance what you learn in the classroom?

BT: As a part-time student in the Higher Education program, I have to take one practicum where we complete 150 hours over the span of one semester. I was placed in the College of Visual and Performing Arts Career and Academic Advising Office, serving as a student career advisor. This placed me in a different functional area on campus that I had no prior background knowledge in. In this role, I edited students’ resumes and cover letters, helped organize VPA-specific career fairs, and explained how to prepare for graduate school. I really liked this practicum because it shows you areas you didn’t think that you would be interested in. I had no idea that I would like career advising, but then being in that setting for three months showed me that I have a passion for it.

NS: In addition to my graduate assistantship at the Native Student Program, I intern at Le Moyne Campus Life and complete about 10 to 15 hours a week for the practicum. Campus life really wasn’t on my radar coming into this program. Before this practicum, I thought I just wanted to work with a Native student program. But after working there, I’ve seen how staff implement their passions and interests into their positions. No matter which department I decide to work in, I would still like to work with Indigenous students or work on some type of initiative that supports them.

As a Native student, what has your personal experience at SU been like

BT: When I first came as a graduate student, I felt so far from home. It’s a 16-hour drive back to Wisconsin. But also, it’s kind of difficult to explain, but as I have been living in New York, it is slowly starting to feel like home. New York is the traditional homelands of all Haudenosaunee tribes, so it feels like I’m coming back to my home.

My tribe were forced out of New York to relocate to our reservation in Wisconsin. Being back here, I think, is healing part of my soul. When I came here, I was the only Native student in the Higher Education program. For my undergraduate degree, I majored in First Nation (Native American) studies, and I had other Native students around me all the time. Here, it is the opposite. Compared to the SU’s undergraduate student population, there aren’t as many Native graduate students. There is no specific Native graduate student support.

While there is the Native Student Program here, it is mostly geared towards undergraduates. Knowing these limitations, and with the position I am in now, I want to try to expand the program to be more inclusive to our Indigenous graduate, doctoral, and law students.

NS: My undergraduate and graduate experience are a lot different. As an undergraduate, I was only familiar with my home community. It was hard being away from family, and there was major culture shock coming to Syracuse, with it being a primarily white institution.

I learned very quickly that a lot of people had many misconceptions about Native American people. Before that, I didn’t have much experience with people outside of my community. Before I found the Native Student Program, I felt very alone, as if I was just a number in this institution. I felt like I didn’t belong. Finding the Native Student Program was very beneficial to my experience at Syracuse. It helped with my mental health, my community involvement, making connections, and building relationships. The program solidified for me that not only could I succeed in an environment like this, but I also had support.

As a new graduate student, I knew that I had a community to lean on if I needed additional support. Coming back to campus, I was really excited. Bailey was one of the first people I met when I got here in the fall; it has been awesome to work with her in supporting our Indigenous students.

What is the best thing about SU?

BT: I think the best thing would be all of the connections I’ve made. When they say “SU’s really a networking University,” it really is. I’ve met so many people that I never thought I would meet before, such as Stephanie Waterman. [Waterman is a member of the Onondaga Nation, Turtle Clan, and is an associate professor at the University of Toronto. She is the appointed Runner for the Haudenosaunee and was the first and only faculty associate assigned to the Native Student Program during its inception in 2006.]

Waterman is also a graduate of the Higher Education program and worked directly with Regina Jones to establish the Native Student Program. She conducts research on Native students’ college experiences through an Indigenous lens. This is something that I am really passionate about and want to pursue someday.

NS: I agree with Bailey. The connections and networking are the best part, especially connecting with our Higher Education program cohort and faculty. Building relationships with them has been super helpful as I go through the program. Also, I love working with and building relationships with our Indigenous students and staff on campus.

By Ashley Kang ’04, G’11 (a proud alumna of the M.S. in Higher Education program)