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January 11, 2018 10:00 PM

Gene Thin Elk, More Than A Mentor At USD

Native American students at USD have a second home and a fill-in grandpa while at college thanks to Gene Thin Elk. He's the Native Student Services Director at the university and oversees the program. He provides resources and all the tools for not just Native students to succeed. 

Gene Thin Elk has become a pillar of the USD community.

"I was asked to come over here and run the Native Center and kind of start a program because there really wasn't a program," said Gene Thin Elk, Native Student Services Director. 

That was 31 years ago.  Since then, Director of Native Student Services Gene Thin Elk has paved the way to success for countless students at the university. 

"We developed a real comprehensive program and once we did that then we were able to incorporate a lot of retention services, cultural programming, tutorial services, just a well rounded program," said Thin Elk. 

"Gene has been instrumental, in not only supporting our program but I think helping maintain a presence of Native American studies here at USD," said Dr. Elise Boxer, Native Studies Professor. 

Most Native freshmen are first generation college students - just like Thin Elk was when he started school at USD.   

"When we're studying he'll come around and call us scholars and he's always how proud he is of us. He's always encouraging us to do better for our communities and ourselves as students," said Olvera. 

Thin Elk also has an influence on the staff, including Dr. Elise Boxer. She's been a professor with the Native Studies program since the Fall of 2014.  

"Our first year was really re-building, revitalizing, and then it wasn't until the following year in the fall of 2015, that we actually have implemented our new curriculum," said Boxer. 

Even though Native Student Services and the Native Studies program are separate, working together is a priority. 

"As Native Student Services, what we try to do, with different departments is, we try to collaborate with as many as we possibly could," said Thin Elk.

"I really do believe that if it was not for Gene, that our native students here, they needed somebody who was a constant support for them," said Boxer. 

Support is just the start of it. For students who know him, Gene is a fill-in grandpa. 

"Just walking in you just get that kind of sense of family tie to him. Just the way he interacts with all of our students, it's like we're all a big family," said Junior Selena Olvera. 

"All of our students what they do is, they adopt you. In their mind, in their heart, or in some way, if they have a level respect for you, they'll adopt you," said Thin Elk. 

Thin Elk's impact goes beyond students. 

"Professionally I have a relationship but also personally. The almost four years I've been here, I've had two children and he calls my sons 'Takoja' and that to me always feels good because he calls them grandsons," said Boxer. 

Thin Elk's work within the university included a significant change to dorm regulations to allow for Native students to burn sage or smudge. 

"One of the rules in residence halls is that you can't burn or have an open flame fire and it's not. This is something that's a spiritual belief," said Boxer. 

Since burning sage smells like marijuana, students have to sign a waiver to allow it. 

"That's something I would say that a lot of institutions nationally have had to face. So part of it is not only the educational process but it's also providing a way institutionally and legally where they have to respect and honor the spiritual beliefs of Native students," said Boxer. 

Thin Elk is known for being a resource, making changes, and his jokes.

"He likes his jokes every day," said Olvera. 

"One thing I know that you'll get with Gene, is always his jokes," said Boxer. 

"Oh yeah, that's the medicine!" said Thin Elk. 

Over three decades, students have come and gone but Thin Elk's promise hasn't changed. 

"I'll make sure I'll provide the best for you, make sure that you're comfortable here, make sure it's a good home, and make sure that you're appreciated and you're loved," said Thin Elk. 

Gene does plan on retiring soon and is trying to get those details figured out. Until then students will still be able to enjoy his company and help. 

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