A conversation during an event recognizing Virginia Tech’s history helped make it a little easier for descendants of the region’s First Peoples to attend the university in the future.

During the 1872 Forward: Celebrating Virginia Tech weekend in March, Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham requested a brief conversation with Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. He shared the financial burden tribal members have related to higher education, what the Monacan Indian Nation is doing to help, and wondered what assistance the university might also provide.

“I’m one of those firm believers that if there’s a need, you try to fulfill that need, and sometimes it’s just a simple thing of asking for a little help,” said Branham, who was honored during a portion of the event. “You know, you don’t know what the answer will be until you ask.”

This month, the official answer came in the form of the new Virginia Tech Tribal Match Scholarship, which provides up to $2,500 per academic year in matching funds to students who receive scholarships from any of Virginia’s 11 recognized tribes or the Virginia Tribal Education Consortium. It is available for the fall semester for both new and continuing students.

“'Put your money where your mouth is,’ is what I like to say,” Branham said. “We’re real appreciative of Virginia Tech and all they’ve done for us and all they’ll be doing in the future.”

In many ways, the matching scholarship is an extension of 1872 Forward, which recognized and honored the varied groups that helped shape Virginia Tech — Indigenous people, African Americans, and European settlers — as a part of the university’s sesquicentennial celebration.

And for Sands, who made it a presidential priority to create and fund the scholarship, it is also part of the university’s evolving land-grant mission.

“Our sesquicentennial exploration of Virginia Tech’s founding helped elevate our understanding of the impact on Native peoples and their struggles through the loss of land and opportunity,” Sands said. “This scholarship reflects our commitment to support communities that have been underserved and overlooked and will also enrich our community by including the lived experiences and perspective of students from Virginia’s sovereign Indian nations.”

Two people seated at a table talking
Conversations between Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham (at left) and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands helped the scholarship program quickly move forward. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

The Monacan Nation has long had a connection to Virginia Tech, as the university was built on the Tutelo/Monacan homeland. The relationship between the tribe and university really began to be cultivated, however, when Sam Cook, associate professor and director of American Indian studies, began visiting the tribe’s Amherst County-based headquarters in 1995.

“Sam was the major player, I think, in bringing Tech to us and forming the friendship we have today,” Branham said. “I’ll always be thankful to Sam for doing that.”

Cook, who is the presidential advisor on American Indian Initiatives, has since worked closely with the Monacan Tribe. He also helped spearhead Virginia Tech’s American Indian minor in 1999.

“This matching scholarship should be understood first and foremost as an act of good faith and certainly as an indication that President Sands is not turning a deaf ear,” Cook said. “He’s the first Virginia Tech president that’s met with tribes and been willing to meet with tribal leaders on a regular basis. I’ve been impressed with his willingness to do that.”

In June, Sands spoke and fielded questions at Virginia Tech’s Tribal Leaders Summit, which included leaders from the majority of Virginia’s recognized American Indian tribes.  

Cook said the new scholarship was particularly relevant given the history of education and Indigenous people in Virginia. He said the original charter for the College of William & Mary included a mandate to educate Native people for assimilation’s sake, and more recently, Native Americans were barred from attending public schools until 1963.

“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. … This is a good start,” Cook said.

Melissa Faircloth, director of Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, said the expeditious process that resulted in the scholarship was very impressive.

“I was amazed at how quickly that happened and that we are going to have it during the fall semester,” Faircloth said.

It remains to be determined how many students will immediately benefit because many tribes have yet to award their scholarships for the fall, but the new funding will surely be helpful to this population of current and future students, Faircloth said.

“Anything we can do to make college more accessible, particularly for communities who have not historically had the same access to college nor generational wealth, is a good thing,” Faircloth said. “I think just getting the awareness out there about the scholarship is going to be significant.”

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