ALBUQUERQUE — A small college on the eastern edge of the nation’s largest American Indian reservation is getting noticed.
For two years now, Navajo Technical College has been able to land some big names for its commencement ceremonies. U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan traveled to Crownpoint, N.M., to address last year’s graduating class. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, will make the trip this year.
And next year?
The question draws a chuckle from Navajo Tech President Elmer Guy. He said the school has been very fortunate.
“There’s a lot of excitement here on campus,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “People are thrilled. I’m thrilled. This is just unbelievable that we’re able to do this.”
It’s not surprising though. Navajo Tech has seen its enrollment grow exponentially from just 300 students six years ago to about 1,800. For the past two years, the tribal college has been recognized by the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute as one of the top 120 community colleges in the nation, and it’s on the list of candidates for the honor again this year.
The school also boasts an impressive graduation rate of 80 percent and a retention rate of more than 72 percent—both far above the national average. And the number of students enrolling in science, technology, engineering and math programs is increasing by more than 50 percent a year.
Then there’s the faculty and the high expectations they place on students.
“A lot of it is that we believe in our students,” Guy said. “We know they can do it; we just have to remind them that they’re capable.”
Duncan points to the school’s recipe for using technology and innovation to expand learning, saying it’s giving way to the kinds of skills the students need to help turn their communities into economic engines.
“During my commencement speech last year, I expressed my commitment to closing the opportunity gap for all Native students and expanding educational opportunities,” Duncan said. “I believe that, if students are given the opportunities to succeed, they will. These students at Navajo Tech are proving just that.”
Educational experts and tribal leaders acknowledge the challenges of overcoming disparities in Indian Country, where many families live in poverty and access to health care and educational opportunities are limited. In some communities, unemployment stands at more than 50 percent.
Many of the nation’s three dozen tribal colleges serve these impoverished and remote communities.
The main Navajo Tech campus in Crownpoint is no exception. Far from any big city and a 100-mile commute for some students, it’s surrounded by northwestern New Mexico’s sage prairies and sandstone-topped hills. However, unlike most community colleges, it provides housing and transportation as well as a daycare center.
“There are number of factors that are behind our success, all the way from respecting our students to incorporating our Dine, or Navajo, philosophy throughout campus,” Guy said. “We provide whatever support we can.”
The college offers several baccalaureate degrees, 15 associate degrees and 20 certificate programs ranging from nursing and industrial engineering to culinary arts. Guy said the programs are aimed at filling needs on the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
The tribe was the first to charter a college—Dine College in 1968. From there, five other tribes followed, opening schools in California, North Dakota and South Dakota.
William Mendoza, head of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, said the goal now is to build stronger relationships between school districts, colleges and businesses to ensure Native students are college and career ready.
“It really is a shared responsibility,” he said, “and tribes need to be included within these partnerships in meaningful ways.”