When the Tohono O’Odham Nation’s surveyed its members last year
about barriers that they faced to obtaining a college degree, recurring
themes kept cropping up. The nearest college to the Sells, Arizona
community was more than an hour’s drive away. Moving to a city with a
college was not an option for others. And many found the high cost of
big-city rent prohibitive.
Tribal leaders in this southwest Arizona desert town, located near
the U.S.-Mexico border, believe they have a solution. They plan to open
a tribal college offering two-year degrees.
We’re already looking for someone that has a really strong
background and experience as a college president,” says Rosilda Manuel,
the tribe’s director of education.
If the Tohono O’Odham Nation succeeds in its quest, the planned new
institution would be the nation’s thirty-second tribal-run college.
Most tribal schools are community colleges.
Arizona has nineteen other public community colleges and one other
tribal college — Navajo Community College in northern Arizona. But the
proposed Tohono O’Odham tribal college is not a done deal. Several
hurdles still must be overcome.
The tribe hopes to get a few classes started by this fall if the
new school is approved by the Tohono O’Odham Nation’s tribal council.
The ambitious project falls in step with a national trend that has seen
more and more of the country’s Native American tribes developing their
own higher education programs.
Native American education leaders say the tribal higher education
institutions fill a unique niche on the reservation. The colleges offer
culturally appropriate classes to thousands of people who otherwise
would not receive an education because they lack the transportation or
funds needed to attend elsewhere.
“When the first group of tribal colleges was established, the
founding tribal college presidents all thought that within twenty-five
years there would be a tribal college on every American Indian
reservation in the United States,” says Dr. Gerald “Catty” Monette,
president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
“The growth of the tribal college movement has been steady and,
with the enduring success and achievement of so many of our colleges,
more and more tribes are founding their own tribal colleges to serve
the unique needs of their own communities,” says Monette, who also is
president of Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, N.D.
Building a Reality …
The decision to create a community college here on the sprawling
Tohono O’Odham reservation, which is about the same size as the state
of Connecticut, followed a survey that was distributed to the tribe’s
20,000 members about a year ago. Then, each of the tribe’s eleven
districts held meetings to discuss the issue. At each meeting, members
described the hardships imposed for those who wanted to pursue a higher
“Our students were not used to being away from home,” says, Manuel.
“It was especially a culture Shock to have to pay $650 for an apartment
and learn that it doesn’t include utilities.
“People say they would have to learn to budget and live within
their means as well as having to worry about passing classes,” she
adds. “In the long run, too many were dropping out.”
In the past, according to Manuel, only about 20 percent of those
who left the reservation to attend college returned with any sort of
degree. Worse yet, many of those who did succeed decided to stay in
their adopted cities rather than return to help improve their home
community. After reviewing the survey results and listening to member
suggestions, the tribal council decided it needed its own higher
Because American Indian tribes still exist as sovereign nations,
there was only one official hurdle. Federal officials require tribes
that want to open their own colleges to have a mentor school. In this
case, the Pima County Community College District, which has been
offering a few classes here in Sells, agreed to oversee the development
of the new school. Currently, 250 students from the Sells area are
enrolled in Pima’s program.
The University of Arizona — located in Tucson, the nearest major
city also has indicated it will lend assistance of some sort, tribal
“They’re holding our hand,” says tribal member Jacque Armstrong,
who has taught accounting classes for the Pima college district and
hopes to teach for the new tribal college.
Armstrong Says she was one of the members of the tribe who was
forced to travel long distances to attend classes in order to receive
her college degree. But getting rid of long drives will not be the only
advantage students will have in a more familiar learning environment,
“Sometimes people will ask questions in our classes here in the
Tohono O’Odham language if they’re more comfortable with it,” Armstrong
Twenty-year-old Marion Ben is just one of many tribal members who
is eager to see the much-needed community college get started.
“I’m already saving what I can get,” says Ben, who works in the
tribe’s human resources department. “Every pay day, I put aside what I
can afford. Hopefully, by the time the college is established, I’ll
have enough to start.”
For Ben, who attended classes in Tucson at Chaparral Career College
for about a year, the new college is an opportunity to get her
education back on track.
“If I want to get anywhere in life or in the workforce, I know I
need the educational background to do that,” Ben says. “This will
benefit a lot of people.”
Behind the scenes, the Tohono O’Odham Nation’s tribal council is
examining funding issues, according to a tribal spokesperson who
declined to be identified. The tribe projects that it will have to come
up with about $10 million for the first five years. The council stands
ready to commit to two years of operating costs from its savings
accounts and pay for capital and construction COSTS. ‘
The tribe is not enormously wealthy, but it does have a steady flow
of income from 500 slot machines, a card room, and a bingo hall located
at a gambling operation in Tucson. The tribe also imposes sales taxes
on businesses and a tax on all tobacco sold within its two-million-acre
territory, something it can do because of its sovereign nation status.
RELATED ARTICLE: Factoids: Tribal Colleges
Thirty-one tribal colleges belong to the American Indian Higher
Education Consortium. There are several more higher education programs
on other reservations, but officials are not sure how many.
There are more than 550 federally recognized tribes, and slightly
more than 200 have gambling operations. But only a handful of the
gambling operations bring in huge revenues.
About 25,000 students from 250 federally recognized tribes attend the tribal colleges.
Only 2 percent of those who attend tribal colleges do not qualify for some sort of need-based financial aid.
The average tribal college student is twenty-seven years old.
The average entry-level salary for a tribal college graduate is $18,000,
Tribal colleges were created over the past twenty-years to serve the
unique needs in different American Indian communities. All American
Indian tribes have different cultures, traditions and religions. Some
share common languages with slight differences in dialect or word
Tribal colleges were given federal land-grant status in 1994.
Tribal college graduates who transfer to four-year schools are more
likely to attain four-year degrees than other American Indian students.
Source: American Indian Higher Education Consortium
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© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com