Once, during a high school lacrosse game, a group of fans from an opposing high school called Jacelyn Lazore and her teammates – many of whom were Native Americans – derogatory names associated with Indigenous peoples.

That incident, which Lazore vividly recalls, happened more than five years ago, and stereotypes unfortunately still exist in today’s world. But the young woman, who now plays attack on the Virginia Tech lacrosse team and is a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation on the Canadian border, refuses to shun her heritage and culture. On the contrary, she embraces her background, choosing to educate and encourage when the situations allow for it.

“It’s definitely defeating, but it makes room for the opportunity to change the perception in the way that others see us,” Lazore said.

Lazore and numerous other Native students at Virginia Tech plan to celebrate their respective cultures this Saturday, April 3, at the fifth annual Spring Powwow. Held virtually this year because of COVID protocols, the event, sponsored by Native at VT and the American Indian an Indigenous Community Center (AIICC), will be streamed live from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. on the Social Distance Powwow Facebook page. This powwow highlights the diverse cultures of Native peoples and features arts and crafts, music, dance exhibitions, and more.

Lazore, a sophomore, will be tardy with her attendance to Saturday’s powwow and may miss most of the event – the Hokies play Louisville at noon. But she expects to get a full report of the day’s festivities from her friends within the group. When she became involved with Native at VT, she found a group of people with like interests and backgrounds and with whom she could relate outside the sport of lacrosse.

“I started to feel more of a sense of home when I met the Native at VT group,” Lazore said. “They’re a very small group, but they’re very big in the sense of family. Even though I’ve had a limited amount of time to be with them — because the majority of time, I’m with my team lifting, I’m traveling, or I’m practicing – but the time I’ve had with them, it’s been very, very, comforting.

“I found that sense of community just through this small group of individuals. We come from different backgrounds, but we do share the same intentions to have Indigenous excellence represented everywhere.”

Virginia Tech officials hoped to foster that exact type of mindset when they started committing resources and staffing to Native American outreach in 2016. That year, the university opened the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, with the goal of supporting Native American students on campus. In 2018, the university’s Cultural and Community Centers named Melissa Faircloth, a graduate student pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology with a focus on the experiences of Native students on college campuses, as the full-time director of the AIICC.

Virginia Tech’s admissions staff also made recruiting Native American students a priority. Led by staff members, the university established the Virginia Tribal Initiative, which leverages relationships with current and former Native American students to build connections with Virginia tribes in hopes of increasing opportunities and access to higher education. This was part of Virginia Tech President Tim Sands’ broader plan to increase the number of underrepresented and underserved groups among the Virginia Tech student population to 40 percent by 2022.

Currently, Native Americans comprise less than 1 percent of the student population at Virginia Tech, but according to Faircloth, the number of applications rose in the past year and efforts to let Native American high school students know that Virginia Tech welcomes diversity are taking effect.

“We’ve had in recent years a more concerted effort from admissions to reach out to this population,” Faircloth said. “They also hired Lee Lovelace [as tribal outreach liaison], and he is our admissions liaison for Native student recruitment, so he’s been leading those initiatives in admissions. They were doing outreach and college tables at the tribal powwows throughout the state, and they’ve had a lot of success, even in the virtual format this year, of reaching out to folks virtually.

“I would attribute some of it [the rise in applications] also to the growing resources at Tech. Folks are taking note of that.”

Jacelyn Lazore running onto the field before a Virginia Tech lacrosse game
Though a starter on the Virginia Tech lacrosse team, Jacelyn Lazore finds time to participate in Native at VT events on campus and enjoys learning about other Indigenous cultures.

Part of the outreach efforts include Saturday’s powwow, which was an idea that came from Faircloth. The powwow serves multiple purposes, including allowing Native American students to remain connected to their cultures. It also is used as an outreach opportunity to Native American high school students, and it allows for the educating of Virginia Tech’s non-Native community about Native American customs.

“It’s an important aspect of visibility for our student community,” Faircloth said. “It’s an opportunity for them to share their culture and educate folks across the broader campus, but also it’s a time to connect with Virginia tribal communities because we’ve had a lot of support and folks coming out and participating and tribal leaders coming out and participating. It serves a number of important roles in terms of increasing visibility, increasing cultural awareness, and giving us an opportunity to engage tribal communities across the state.”

Lazore certainly knows about fighting for visibility, awareness, and engagement, both within her own tribe and outside of it. Tribal rules prevented girls from playing lacrosse, but several years ago, Lazore and her teammates won over the clan mother of the tribe, who got other tribal leaders to change their bylaws and later helped with fundraising efforts to keep the girls program afloat when budget cuts originally forced her high school to eliminate the team.

Today as a college student-athlete, she embraces her roles as student, athlete, and student body educator. When many people find out that she grew up on a reservation, they immediately jump to conclusions – crushing poverty, inadequate housing, deficient education system, poor health care, alcoholism, and drugs. Certainly, those are problems on a lot of reservations, but not everyone falls victim to those things. She quickly points that out to those willing to listen.

Lazore herself is a living example. Thanks in part to a strong family foundation and to her self-motivation, she made the decision at a young age not to be an example of those stereotypes.

“I sort of noticed that they [people in general] already had an assumption of me before I knew them based on these stereotypes, and it bothered me,” she said. “It bothered me a lot. I was just like, ‘Why are you able to do that? Why are you able to make these assumptions about me when you don’t know me?’

“I want to show young people that they don’t have to go down those paths to move forward. There are a lot of people in high school that go down those paths, and I don’t look down at them for that. But for me, I wouldn’t want someone to take away an opportunity that I could control.”

Jacelyn Lazore moving down the field in Virginia Tech's lacrosse game against William & Mary
Jacelyn Lazore is open to any and all possibilities when it comes to her future, but she knows she'll return to her beloved home some day to help her fellow Mohawk Tribe members.

That philosophy certainly has served her well, providing her with opportunities that few ever receive. Her lacrosse skills enabled her to earn a spot on Team Haudenosaunee, the national team for the Iroquois Confederacy in the Federation of International Lacrosse that played in England in 2017. In addition, she spent more than three weeks in India in 2017 as part of a service project trip while she attended Northfield Mount Hermon, a boarding school in Massachusetts. In India, she taught science to young children in an orphanage, and she still remains in touch with many of those kids.

Lazore spent the final two years of her high school career at IMG Academy, a prestigious private school in Bradenton, Florida, that places an emphasis on sports. Her move there led to her receiving an offer to play at Virginia Tech, where she starts for head coach John Sung.

Lazore hasn’t mapped her future path just yet. She continues her pursuit of a degree in residential environments and design and remains open to all opportunities.

“I like to keep an open mind about anything,” she said. “If I didn’t keep an open mind, I probably wouldn’t be here now. I probably wouldn’t be at Virginia Tech.”

But Lazore knows the road for her ultimately will lead back home. She aspires to put her skills to use in some way to help with the housing situation on the reservation – housing is limited, and better design-builds could help with that.

Elders on the reservation didn’t like to support the idea of her leaving their territory. In their minds, if she left, she would be leaving her roots and most likely never return.

Yet for Jacelyn Lazore, returning home is – and always will be – important to her.

“I don’t want to go into the world and forget about where I’ve come from and who I am,” she said. “I always want to make sure that I’m giving a helping hand back to where I came from.

“I think that’s really the most important thing – to always be continuously giving back. Because the next kid who takes on these opportunities, I want them to do the exact same thing. That’s the goal – to have this growth and change the way the whole nation sees us.”

Written by Jimmy Robertson