Walking Between Two Worlds: Indigenous Student Stories of Navigating the Structures and Policies of Public, Non-Native Institutions

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Virginia Tech


This dissertation walks the balance between the western structures of academia and Indigenous ways of storytelling and knowing. Stories are how knowledge is shared and passed down in many Indigenous cultures. This study utilizes Indigenous Storywork methods, alongside western case study methodology, to explore how colonialism and the structures of public, non-Native higher education institutions and engineering programs impact the lived experiences of Indigenous STEM students. Using Tribal Critical Race Theory (TribalCrit), this study also connects individual student experiences through stories to systemic structures of universities and engineering programs in a way that honors and amplifies Indigenous ways of thinking and doing. The study was situated at a university in the eastern U.S. and had three primary forms of data: public documents such as university historical documents and program policies and structures, focus group discussions with a university Council of Elders from the Indigenous community, and individual interviews with Indigenous STEM students from the Lumbee and Coharie nations. The findings demonstrate the ways that the Indigenous STEM students at North Carolina State University hold community as a cultural value from their Tribal backgrounds that is paramount to their success at the university. The students utilize community to access knowledge and build power for themselves as well as for the whole university Indigenous community. NC State's Indigenous engineering students perceived the structures and policies of their engineering programs to be disconnected from community and relationality and thus did not utilize or connect to these structures as designed. This work also provides an example of a framework for engaging with university Indigenous communities to co-create meaningful and impactful research and demonstrates the differences in the experiences of Indigenous students in the eastern U.S. from those in the west, specifically in terms of their invisibility in the larger community, both on and off campus.



Indigenous education, engineering education, Tribal Critical Race Theory, Storytelling, Community, Relationality