Renee Beaulieu-Banks is a member of the Anishinaabe tribe from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, who grew up in Minneapolis. She has worked for Metropolitan State University for the past nine years as the university’s Native American cultural coordinator, and most recently as the Native American Retention Specialist. For 23 years, Beaulieu-Banks has worked for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. And through all of her years and titles, Native American students remain the focus.
In her current position at Metropolitan State’s American Indian Student Services, she works to keep Native American students in school, and reduce their dropout rate. It’s a multifaceted position that involves acts as simple as calling a student to remind her of a deadline, helping a student apply for a scholarship or coordinating time during the wild rice harvest. Or, it can mean referrals to services outside of the university, such as for physical and mental wellness.
But Beaulieu-Banks is not merely reactive in her campaign. Three years ago she began an initiative to bring the Dakota and Ojibwe languages to Metropolitan State to counteract their declining usage. At the same time, she coordinated the university’s Native American advisory committee. The committee discusses and recommends to the university president how to improve services and curriculum for the school’s Native American population.
It can be difficult to get students involved in anything outside of academics. So, at the beginning of each semester, Beaulieu-Banks introduces herself to new students in an e-mail, and describes in detail the services available to them.
“They really have to strategize their resources when they come to campus, so in my role as a cultural coordinator, which doesn’t have a real tangible service, students have to come in and decide, ‘Do I see my advisor and do my degree plan or do I take work off and find a babysitter to come in and see if we can talk voices or current events,’” Beaulieu-Banks said.
Another problem facing Renne and the students she advises is bound up in history. “Not all American Indians, but many of us come from a culture and a community where when you’re coming to an institution, there is some inherent distrust,” she said.
Part of her job is to break through that centuries-old buildup of mistrust and help reduce the inequities present in Native American graduation rates.
“I think a lot of the things that trip us up is fear—fear of failing, fear of not knowing,” Beaulieu-Banks said. “So, recognizing that fear of being able to sit aside and do what you need to do and then go on from there.”
Outside Metropolitan State, Beaulieu-Banks is involved in an annual banquet that celebrates Minnesota Native Americans who have graduated from college. This year was the 30th celebration, and Metropolitan State University’s Native American students made up 18 of the 88 people who graduated this past academic year. The banquet was hosted just two months ago, but Beaulieu-Banks and the committee are already raising money for next year’s event, and donations are always welcome.
Despite the obstacles, Beaulieu-Banks is always considering different methods to help Native American students succeed. Many students who qualify do not make use of her help. Look her up—she’s on the second floor of Founders Hall on the Saint Paul Campus.