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Making the Circle a Circle

Making the Circle a Circle

Of the myriad challenges facing Native American college students, retention appears to be the most daunting

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Leaving the reservation for college wasn’t too hard for Rozanna Benaly, a Utah teen who already had lived away from home at the Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington.
But it’s different this time. School is five hours farther away, there are more than 23,700 students on her urban campus and Benaly worries she won’t fit in.
For hundreds of American Indian teenagers, going away to college can be a frightening experience — scarier than usual for rural teens leaving high school behind.
“For any student coming to the university, it is a culture shock. But that is probably a little more exacerbated by folks who are coming from rural America or the reservations,” says Benny Shendo Jr., who heads Native American programs at the University of New Mexico. “That struggle to fit into a whole different world view, different from their own, is complex.”
Stacked on top of the usual worries of added academic work, Benaly of Montezuma Creek, Utah, is concerned about not seeing her family and not being able to join traditional gatherings.
“If there is a ceremony going on at home, I won’t be there to participate in it,” she says. And for Benaly, missing out on her tribe’s traditional blessings and feasts means life is incomplete. “So for me, that doesn’t make the circle a circle.”
Higher education experts say there are cultural hurdles American Indian students must overcome in college — one reason their enrollment numbers are low and retention rates even lower.
The number of American Indian students enrolled in college has been inching upward in recent years, but remains small. American Indian students accounted for less than 1 percent of all college students in 1996, according to the American Council on Education.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports the nation’s American Indian population is young, with about half under 27 — the average age of college students.
Here in New Mexico, Native Americans make up about 10 percent of the state’s total population, with about half in their mid-20s or younger. But at the state’s public universities, Indians usually make up only a pinch of the student body.
At the University of New Mexico,American Indians represented 4.9 percent of the student body last year. At Arizona State University, it was 2.1 percent. In the University of California system and at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, they make up less than 1 percent of students.
Getting American  Indian students to stay in school is another task, experts say.
Paul Boyer, who has researched tribal colleges and Indian education issues for the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C., says it’s difficult to quantify the problems that American Indian students face.
“In the past 30 years there has been a growing interest in getting more Indian students into higher education. But it’s not enough to say, ‘We’re going to admit you, our doors are open to you.’ The problem is not acceptance, the problem gets back to retention,” Boyer says.
Shawna Martinez, a Navajo from Farmington studying pre-med, says it can be tough to keep Indian students on campus.
“I can understand, after their freshman year, how hard it is for them to stay out here,” says Martinez, who expects to graduate next semester from the University of New Mexico. “They say the freshman year either makes or breaks you.”
While most American Indian students have support from their families, it’s more difficult to find cultural and academic support on campus, Martinez says.
Experts say that universities across the country are beginning to pay more attention to struggling American Indian students by funding support groups and creating special orientation programs for freshmen to introduce them to one another and get them ready for the rigors of college life.
Montana State University, for example, has been working on its Indian programs for more than a decade. Wayne Stein, head of the university’s Center for Native American Studies, says the key is connecting with students.
The university has to make a special effort within the faculty ranks to reach out to American Indian students,” Stein says. “The first thing a university needs to look at is itself and ask, ‘Do we have a place on this campus that makes American Indian students feel welcome? Do we have a place where they can go and meet a counselor or adviser who is dedicated to them?'”
This semester, University of New Mexico officials are following closely the fruits of the first summer orientation program for American Indian students. The three-week program was held in July to help freshmen learn their way around campus and get a taste of academic demands.
Tilford Brown, 25, a business major who is getting ready to graduate from the university next semester, says it’s important for freshmen to understand there are people and student groups they can turn to for help.
“Retention of our students. That’s what we’re really striving for, trying to get these young students to work hard,” he says.
As long as students have support — at home and on campus — making it to graduation day is possible, says Karen Dahozy, a Navajo and president of the CIRCLE Society, a social group for American Indians at the University of New Mexico.
“I see a lot of them here, and they’re making it,” she says. “It takes a while. But you just have to keep going.”                                                                  

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