SONY DSC
SONY DSC (Eli Burak)
FARMINGTON — Ask some of the highest achieving Navajo students where they want to go to college and a good number of them will say, "Dartmouth."

Dartmouth, located more than 2,300 miles away from the Navajo Nation, costs about $50,000 a year to attend. It admits only about 1,000 students a year and is one of eight colleges in the country classified as "Ivy League."

It's no coincidence that, of all the well thought of institutions in the country, they say Dartmouth.

Since its founding in 1769, the school has been geared towards educating Native American students. Its mission, however, has changed drastically.

"One of the objectives was to assimilate (the Indian children) ... and minimize the conflicts," said N. Bruce Duthu, chairman of Dartmouth's Native American studies program.

The school began as a charter school founded in the name of King George III of England. It would educate any children in the community, which today is in Hanover, N.H.

The charter that funded the school said that the school would be "for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land ... and also of English youth and any others," Duthu said.

Few Native American children wanted to attend the school, though, because it was far from their homes and had a curriculum that separated them from the traditions they knew.

In its first 20 years, the school only enrolled 19 Native American students.

"That's less than one a year," Duthu said.

In fact, not until 1970 did the college again make it a priority to enroll Native American students.

The college, at that time, made a commitment to return to its roots and create a campus where Native American students could pursue a quality education, and feel like they were a part of the campus community, Duthu said.

The college appears to have succeeded.

The college has more Native American undergraduates than all the other Ivy League schools' Native American student populations combined. It admits about 40 Native American students per year.

"One of the main reasons I came here was the Native American studies major," said Preston Wells, a senior at Dartmouth. "It's the only (Native American studies) major in the Ivy League, and it's the best in the nation."

Wells, a member of the Choctaw Nation, came to Dartmouth from Hugo, Okla. He now is a member of the Native American House on campus, a home that has more than a dozen Native American students living in it.

"There's a lot of Navajos," said Wells.

Navajo and Cherokee students make up the bulk of the Native American student population because those tribes have the largest populations, both Dartmouth students and faculty said.

"There's always a ton of students that get in on the fly-in," Wells said.

The college's fly-in program is an effective promotional tool, students and faculty said. The program pays for a three-day visit for many Native American students' considering enrolling. They receive a complimentary round-trip flight, and often free lodging and meals.

"Dartmouth gets them here, and then they see it, and they want to go here," Wells said.

And they see all of the comforts it has to offer. Not only do they offer a wealth of classes in Native American studies, they also have a program that has activities and support primarily for Native American students.

Wells is even trying to start a branch of Phi Sigma Nu, a Native American fraternity that has various branches across the country, most of them on the East Coast.

The school already has a Native American sorority on campus.

"Now that we have so many alums, they act as ambassadors," said Duthu. The school's alumni spread word of the opportunities that Dartmouth has for young Native Americans, he said.

Even post-college a lot of the students receive guidance and financial assistance in pursuing internships and jobs after they graduate.

"We have a pretty phenomenal rate of our students who end up going into jobs that give back to Indian Country," Duthu said. "A lot of these kids go on to do remarkable things."

And, granted, unlike many of the students who go off to Ivy League schools, they did not come from silver-spoon families. Some of them came from homes where they had no running water, no electricity, and no support. 

For many of those students, the education is free.

"If a student's family's income is below $70,000 a year, Dartmouth College offers a full financial aid package. All you have to do is get admitted," said Matthew Tso, a former Dartmouth student who now is the board president of the Central Consolidated School District. "Cost of attendance should not be a barrier that prevents high-achieving students from applying."

The experience, education, relationships, and memories obtained at Dartmouth College are priceless, he said.

The college has no intention of slowing its programs for Native American students, either.

The Native American studies program is growing each year, Duthu said, with between 500 and 600 students taking those courses. The majority of them are non-Native American students, though the majority of students who major in the program are Native American.

That, too, is changing, however.

More and more students who are not Native American are becoming interested in the studies, and more of the Ivy League schools are trying to expand their own programs, Duthu said, even though they are far behind Dartmouth's.

"It's just not a priority for them," Duthu said. "For us, the commitment goes all the way back to our foundation."