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The New Mexico State University American Indian Program (AIP) not only offers a place for the university’s more than 600 indigenous students to learn and connect, it welcomes anyone who pays NMSU tuition and the entire community.
“Come on over and have a conversation with us,” said AIP Director Michael Ray, a native of Laguna Pueblo who has a degree in economics from NMSU. Ray joined AIP as a program coordinator in 2011 and became director in 2016.
AIP is one of the few student-support programs at NMSU that has its own dedicated building, located at 3015 Andrew Wall Place, where it serves students who have come to NMSU from throughout the state and across the country.
As AIP director, Ray reaches out to 23 tribal communities in New Mexico. His personal visits to tribes and pueblos have been reduced because of Covid-19, but Ray continues to connect with tribal administrators through email and online, though access can be an issue in remote parts of the state.
Ray also connects with Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Socorro, Texas, 13 miles from downtown El Paso, and works with San Juan College in Farmington and Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, to encourage their undergrad and graduate students to attend NMSU. Ray also stays in regular touch with other tribal colleges around the country, and with students and staff at NMSU branch colleges. He would also like to work more closely with indigenous cultures in Mexico, Canada and even Japan.
AIP has also become a resource for people who, through 23andMe, Inc. and other DNA-testing programs have discovered a genetic link to a tribe.
“How can we help?” is Ray’s first question to American Indian students and all visitors who come to the nearly 7,500 square-foot NMSU American Indian Student Center, which offers students study and meeting rooms, a kitchen, a multipurpose room and even a meditation room.
AIP received $84,000 in federal funds last August to expand its peer mentoring program, which provides one-on-one support to help incoming and first-year American Indian students adjust academically and socially to NMSU, Ray said in an NMSU news release.
Each mentor – usually an NMSU junior or senior – works with up to four students, meeting with each one once or twice a week at AISC and/or remotely.
As staying safe during the pandemic allows, Ray said he is hopeful mentors and mentees will be able to participate together in more campus and community activities, including NMSU sporting events and performances at the ASNMSU Center for the Arts, along with hikes at Dripping Springs Natural Area and visits to the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces.
AIP also sponsors events, including American Indian Week each April, that celebrate cultures, food and history and highlight what’s going on in students’ tribal communities back home.
“I see the growth,” Ray said. “I learn more from the students sometimes than they learn from me.”
AIP sponsors three student organizations on campus: the United Native American Organization, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Native American Business Students Association.
Ray said his favorite part of being AIP director is “interacting with our students,” and helping them find opportunities to advance and to connect with others.
AIP partners with LGBT+ Programs, Black Programs, Chicano Programs and other campus resources to reach “the entire spectrum of identities” of NMSU students, he said. It can also help students with issues like housing and food – whatever it takes to “create a sense of community,” Ray said, “of security and wellbeing.”
Ray said one of his biggest challenges at AIP is getting students to ask for help, especially after the enforced isolation of the pandemic. He’s also challenged because AIP’s only paid staff are himself and administrative assistant Britney Stout.
“We could do a lot more if we had more help,” he said.