HLS sees rise in Native Am. admits


NALSA pumpkin sale.
Members of the Native American Law Students Association.

Among the other accomplishments of this year’s ALLsa diversity celebration was the general awareness it provided, especially to 1L students, of the presence of a Native American organization at the Law School. Many students admitted they had never heard of the Native American Law Students Association, or NALSA, until they met with its representatives and ate its food at the diversity event.

Tessa Platt, Carrie Lyons and Wenona Benally are all 1L students who identify themselves as Native American. They come from different parts of the country and are descended from diverse tribes, but together represent the Native American voice among entering law students at HLS. The admittance of these three students represents a significant step forward in Native American enrollment — there were no Native American students in the last year’s 1L class.

“Native Americans are often a forgotten minority,” said Platt, a native of Oregon and a participant last year in the Fulbright Student Program. She is a registered Creek (Muscogee) and a Cherokee.

“[My] Cherokee ancestors were so ashamed of their heritage that they did not register with the tribe,” she said. She argues that the unique experience of Native Americans in dealing with such racism makes them even more valuable in an academic setting. “Because they did not always appear so physically different,” Platt contends, “Native Americans, when faced with intense racism, could assimilate into the population at large.” Platt said she hopes that Native American students can share this distinctive view of racism with other students at the Law School.

Platt came to HLS because of its prestige, academic reputation and low-income protection plan. Although she was pleased overall with the admissions process, Platt hopes in the future that funds can be set aside to specifically fly out Native American students and waive their application fees. She also thinks that a class in Federal Indian Law might attract more Native American students.

Lyons also thinks that HLS should offer application fee waivers and scholarships tailored specifically to Native American students. A 1992 graduate of the University of Oklahoma and a registered Cherokee, Lyons said she is hopeful that she and others can contribute to a general awareness of Native American history among law students. “I have been surprised to learn that people do not know about the Trail of Tears or other events in Native American history,” she said, “and our presence at HLS can help to educate other students about Native American history.”

Lyons said she has been encouraged by the reception she has received thus far from both students and professors. “The interest that students and professors have expressed in Native American issues has made my short time at HLS better,” Lyons said.

Lyons noted that she received special encouragement to apply to HLS. “I felt appreciated when I received an email from former NALSA member Gavin Clarkson and from Allan Ray, an HLS administrator, encouraging me to attend HLS,” she said.

Benally takes a different approach to encouraging Native American students to attend the Law School. An Arizona resident and a member of the Navajo tribe, Benally said she is not convinced that fee waivers would necessarily attract more Native American students. Instead, she cites the lack of a visible Native American community as one of the reasons she hesitated to attend HLS. “For me, it was a huge decision in deciding whether or not to attend Harvard,” Benally admits. “It wasn’t until Native American alumni and representatives from the Harvard University Native American Program contacted me and reassured me that there are activities tailored to Native Americans that I decided to attend.” Benally thinks the best way to encourage Native American students to apply is for the Law School to attend Native American events throughout the country.

Benally has remained active with Native American issues. After graduating from Arizona State in 2000, she worked for the last year-and-a-half at the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona doing research on health care and cultural resources for nineteen Native American tribes in her state.

Director of Admissions Todd Morton says that while HLS does not target any ethnic group specifically, it does work to increase diverse enrollment with broad recruitment strategies. Morton says fly outs for admitted student days and fee waivers are based solely on financial need, thus benefiting Native Americans and other students alike. “If you have a limited amount of funds one way to approach these issues is to reserve the money for the people who need it most,” he said.

Morton asserts that the best way to get Native American students to accept admission is to show them the resources available at the Law School. “Getting a student on campus is a positive thing,” he said.

But Gavin Clarkson ‘02, the former president of NALSA, says that more should be done to specifically increase Native American enrollment. “Harvard University as an institution has in its charter an obligation to educate the American Indians,” he said. “That obligation should be sufficient to prompt a higher level of recruiting and admissions effort directed at potential Native American applicants.”

Clarkson, who currently attends Harvard Business School, says fee waivers and flyout programs should be available to Native Americans without determining financial need. He says HLS should aim to recruit eight to sixteen Native American students per year.

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