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Dr. Ulrike Wiethaus

Department: Religion and American Ethnic Studies

Course: First Year Seminar – American Indian Communities in Urban America: Toward Cultural and Economic Well-being

Location: Greensboro, North Carolina

Ulrike Wiethaus talks with high school students from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians

Professor Ulrike Wiethaus talks with high school students from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians as they explore a native garden on campus as part of the College Careers and Technology program.

Dr. Ulrike Wiethaus has been working with Native American communities for the majority of her professional career at Wake Forest University.  Over the last ten years, she has expanded on this area of interest by designing numerous community engagement courses for her students at Wake Forest.  This format has allowed Wiethaus and her students to support vital Native American initiatives on behalf of language revitalization, women’s well-being, and cultural renewal.

Wiethaus has made sure that her students are taught by knowledgeable tribal members about each community’s specific culture, contemporary issues, and appropriate etiquette.

“American Indian tribes have cultural knowledge and practices that are unlike anything else in the Euro-American world,” Wiethaus explained.  “The US government, like other governments with a colonial history, has a horrific three-hundred year track record of oppressing and marginalizing Indigenous nations to the point where many aspects of Indian culture have been severely repressed or intentionally destroyed.

“With the assistance of the internet and other modern technologies, Indigenous culture is in a state of tremendous renewal and revitalization.  I want my students to understand and appreciate the unique cultural and economic opportunities and challenges that American Indian tribes, like us, are facing in a world that is changing at warp speed.  At the same time, I wanted my students to apply the resources of our campus to building meaningful community-based portfolios of their own intellectual and emotional growth.”

Wiethaus designed the course with a grant from the Kauffman Foundation to explore American Indian urban cultures and entrepreneurship from an interdisciplinary perspective.  As participants in the innovative Kauffman initiative, students collaborated with the Guilford Native American Association (GNAA) to gain a deeper understanding of urban American Indian culture and the economic issues Indigenous communities navigate in an urban setting.

GNAA is a nonprofit organization that serves more than 5,000 Indian people in the Triad by providing a variety of education and advocacy services to their clients.  GNAA’s work is primarily focused on job development, the Workforce Investment Act, and fair housing issues, as well as improving access to transportation and medical services.

In the spirit of the organization’s mission, GNAA and Wiethaus asked students to research, construct, and present a business proposal that would help GNAA to create new jobs.  This assignment required the First Year Seminar group to work in teams to complete numerous challenging and sophisticated tasks that are commonplace in the business world.

For example, students

  • Prepared a professional business plan and executive summary;
  • Projected GNAA’s financial needs, expenditures, and income opportunities;
  • Identified the organization’s needs and assets;
  • Identified potential sources of capital and helped GNAA prepare a “pitch” for capital directed to various funding sources.

To increase their understanding of the historical context, the students examined local urban issues in order to develop locally appropriate cultural programming and business ventures.

These tasks provided students with a unique opportunity to learn vital business skills in the context of a rich, and frequently misunderstood cultural environment.  According to Wiethaus, the combination of these elements is at the heart of service learning.

“The great thing about a program like this is that it completely shatters students’ conception of what it means to ‘help’,” Wiethaus remarked.  “By offering students assignments where they think and work together with a well-established community to solve complex problems, the students gain transferable skills that they can choose to use and develop for the rest of their lives.

“Then, when you put this strategy to work in the context of a real social setting, it changes the way students look at the world around them.  It gives them the confidence to know they can be good partners in a diverse world and thrive even when out of their comfort zone.  That is what service learning is all about.”