KU names first director of tribal relations, to work with Haskell in advancing Native American student success

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The University of Kansas has named Melissa Peterson its first director of tribal relations, a role dedicated to increasing student success and bolstering the university’s relationships with Native American community members.

Peterson, who currently serves as an associate director for KU’s TRIO Supportive Educational Services & STEM and an adviser of the KU First Nations Student Association, will begin the new role on May 17, KU announced Thursday in a press release.


Peterson’s role will focus on the needs of KU’s Native American student population while also strengthening the university’s ties to tribal communities and will work closely with Haskell Indian Nations University, where Peterson worked as an athletic coach before coming to KU in 2015.

“Melissa has demonstrated a passion and commitment to supporting Native American communities throughout her career,” Susan Klusmeier, KU vice provost for academic success, said in a press release. “The wealth of knowledge and experience she brings into this new role will help KU build relationships and engage with Haskell Indian Nations University, tribal nations and Native American organizations to foster community and support Native American student success.”

Peterson, born and raised on the Navajo Nation, is of the T ł ‘ízí lání clan (Many Goats), born for the Todích’íí’nii clan (Bitter Water). She was a member of the volleyball and women’s basketball teams from 2005-07 at Virginia Commonwealth University, according to the press release. She holds a master’s degree in public health from KU and anticipates completing her doctorate in higher education administration from KU this year. At Haskell, Peterson served as head coach of the university’s volleyball team.

“I am honored to be appointed as the director of tribal relations. Many faculty, staff and students, including myself, have advocated the prioritization of Native American student support at KU,” Peterson said in the release. “My interest in this position comes from my deep teachings as a Diné. In our teachings, the Diné word “K’é” means the feeling you have when you are deeply connected to others and understand and value your roots.

“Therefore, I hope to advance Native initiatives as it relates to student success and to begin to build that system of K’é on behalf of KU,” she said.

KU Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, the release said, has also sought to establish a Native American student support coordinator, who will report to Peterson. A search for that role will happen later this year.

“With the university’s resources and intention to support this position and its responsibilities, KU can become a leader in the nation in its recognition of Native American students’ identities, cultural representation and academic success on KU’s campus and beyond,” Peterson said. “I look forward to partnering with sovereign nations to develop important relationships that will serve the students of America’s first peoples.”

KU believes this will be the first time in the institution’s history that there will be a full-time position to address the needs of Native American students and strengthen ties to tribal communities, according to the release.

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