Rory Taylor '14: Champion of Change
Rory Taylor '14 wants fellow Native American youth to see themselves in college and offers the tools to help them get there.
As a Pomona College freshman, Taylor founded IndigeNATION, a program that pairs Native high school students with college mentors who offer support throughout the college application and enrollment process and provide cultural education to help Native students stay connected to their tribal communities.
Question: What unique challenges do Native American students face when it comes to college prep?
Answer: One of the biggest issues is legacy. I don't know that you'll find any indigenous family who over the course of two or three generations doesn't have an issue with formal education. When I was in high school, I was interested in playing Division I lacrosse, and I thought attending an East Coast prep school was the best way to pursue it. But because my paternal grandparents, who are the indigenous side of my family, were forcibly removed from their home and put into boarding school my parents asked, "Why would you leave home? We fought for so long as indigenous nations to keep our kids at home." How do I reconcile being Indian and being an academic when for so long educational institutions were a form of cultural and academic assimilation?
Q: How do you address this challenge?
A: My hope is that our students begin to recognize that academic institutions can be a springboard to advance their own ideas. Tara Houska, Native American advisor to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, recently met with our students and talked about her experience going through college and law school and how she's now using her position to elevate Native American issues on a national level. At Pomona, we have indigenous students throughout several departments. We're all Indian. We're all trying to address problems in our community through different lenses and developing our ideas about how to improve our communities through the skills we've gained at college.
Q: Do you see your work in Native American educational equity aligning with other efforts to address educational disparities (racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender)?
A: Yes. There's an intersectionality issue. A lot of the students we work with are mixed race or low income or a first generation college student. I don't know that if we were planning to just focus on indigenous education that we would get anywhere, because our communities are too small. We need allies. We need partnerships. And I think we'd be doing a disservice to those groups, to ourselves and to academic institutions if we didn't try to incorporate those themes.
Q: Last year, you were named a Champion for Change by the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY). What has this experience meant to you?
A: It's meant a lot on campus because CNAY is a national policy organization. Before, IndigeNATION was just another club. Now it's recognized on a national level. I spent a week in Washington, D.C. doing advocacy work for my tribe and for indigenous policy and was also a summer intern for CNAY. It was a great way to network. I met Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell several times. The experience has elevated me to think about what we do on campus, and how it relates to a national conversation: how Pomona can be an academic center for policy change; how academia in general can be a motivator for policy change as well as indigenous communities.
Q: You also were the first youth to speak at the White House Tribal Nations Conference general convention, where you said the U.S. "can no longer afford to put forth a failing effort when it comes to Native American students and their graduation rates." Can you share a bit about this experience?
A: I was actually sitting in the backroom with a couple cabinet secretaries, the U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council and all their staffers and was thinking, 'Hey, I'm a second-year undergrad.' But getting this privileged access, you learn that people in these high-up positions at one point were undergraduate students too, and now, whatever their role is, they just want to help. I don't know that I said anything new. I just shared my experience, the positives and negatives and where we need to go forward.
Q: You're a rising junior at Pomona. Will the IndigeNATION program continue after you've graduated?
A: We're fortunate to work really well with the admissions offices at a couple of the Claremont Colleges, so we're getting more Native students. We've talked to college freshmen and high school seniors who are really interested in the program and excited to take on that mantel. It's been self-sustaining in that way. And we've really worked hard this year to create an institutional legacy for the program.
Photo by Jeff Hing, Pomona College