Virginia Tech is reaching out to Native American communities by tapping into two of its greatest resources: its students and its graduates.

Native at Virginia Tech, a student organization, has brought a new vibrancy to the university, starting in the spring of 2017, when the group hosted on campus the first of its annual powwows. Since then, the university has sought to build more robust, lasting relationships with the Indigenous communities that call Virginia home.

A key part of that work is the Virginia Tribal Initiative, an effort to recruit more Native American students with the help of recent alumni, including Mae Hey, who received her doctorate in education in 2017.

Hey, an InclusiveVT Faculty Fellow and the university’s Indigenous community liaison, travels with students in Native at Virginia Tech to visit tribes at festivals, powwows, and other events. And the students are proving to be compelling ambassadors. “Rather than tell people about programs, it’s more effective to bring students with me,” Hey said. “It’s better to show others how awesome our students are rather than talk about it.”

Hey noted that the outreach is important beyond Virginia Tech, as the federal government has been slow to recognize Virginia tribes. The Pamunkey tribe was recognized only in 2016, and six others—the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Nansemond Tribes, and Monacan Indian Nation—were acknowledged even later, in 2018.

The lead organizer of the powwows agreed. “Let’s not forget the fact that we have 11 tribal communities in this state and that Tech sits on Monacan Nation land,” said Melissa Faircloth, director of Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center and a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. “Those students should feel like this is their university, that there is opportunity here for them.”