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Institutions Need to Better Serve American Indian/Alaskan Native Students

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) students enrolled in institutions of higher education increased 127% between 1976 and 2012. Higher education as a whole has yet to respond to the unique needs of this growing student population and often overlooks the influence that this group plays among diverse peers. Institutions must make systemic changes to improve outreach efforts, accessibility, retention programs, and better serve AI/AN students to eliminate educational achievement gaps.

Elena Seymana NourrieElena Seymana Nourrie

The original inhabitants of this land are increasingly ignored and often deemed invisible on college campuses. Institutions of higher education must consider the lived experiences of AI/AN students to implement effective change. Administrators and faculty must provide a space for these voices. Educational leaders must reevaluate policies and pedagogy that work against this population and work to dismantle the hurdles that AI/AN students face in their pursuit of higher education.

In the 2010 Census, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defined American Indian or Alaskan Native as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.” The AI/AN population has increased in recent decades. The 2010 Census indicates that 5.2 million or 1.7% of the total U.S. population identified as solely AI/AN or as AI/AN in combination with other races. The fact that this group accounts for a very small percentage of the larger U.S. population reflects the urgent need to reframe how institutions support AI/AN students and their interactions among diverse peers. Institutions of higher education must take measures to ensure this student population continues to grow.

In Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups , among students enrolled in college in 2008, about 81 percent of Hispanics and 79 percent of AI/AN students attended public institutions, higher than the percentage of Whites (73 percent), Blacks (68 percent), and Asian/Pacific Islanders (75 percent). If clearly so many AI/AN college students are attending public institutions, why aren’t there more resources available for them at these colleges?

As a student of Hopi, Cherokee, and Mexican descent, attending large public four-year institutions for both undergraduate and graduate studies it has been unsurprisingly unsettling to frequently feel marginalized among classmates and across campus as well. Being a spokesperson for all Native Americans isn’t the way that I like to frame my perspectives. Oddly, colleagues often approach and perceive my experiences through catalogued presumptions as though all AI/AN come from similar backgrounds; we all live(d) in tipis, or have a casino that we receive revenue from, or attend college for free. Voicing struggles that AI/AN populations face is a part of the process, but breaking down erroneous assumptions and instead elaborating upon collective and distinct tribal qualities and strengths brings me joy. I know that I am honoring those that have come before me in this way.

Still, one cannot discount the significance of having a cultural center , feeling safe, being recognized, or having an integral role within the campus community, or mattering inside and beyond the classroom.

Both institutions that I attended take pride in their diversity rankings. My experience as a student at each of these colleges was strikingly dissimilar. At my undergraduate institution, I had one Hopi faculty mentor and later, one Navajo student affairs mentor. With their guidance, their actions, and the existence of a Native American Student Center on campus, I always had a friend or a place to go to that validated my experience as a student in higher education and even as an alumna. The quality of my experiences with these individuals made me overlook the fact that there was just one within each position in the entire university. At the institution where I am completing my graduate studies, there is no such center or student affairs mentor. Fortunately, I am now much more confident in navigating this world of higher education, which is all too foreign for many others from similar first generation AI/AN backgrounds, and have worked with inspirational faculty that have cultivated this thirst for continuing graduate education. Yet, scenarios of racism and resistance persist at this institution during events held by the Native American Student Association. In the face of limited administrative advocacy and assistance, I worry about the campus climate for current and future AI/AN students.

An example of racism at another public, four-year university illustrates how such issues of blatant disrespect and neglect of AI/AN students continues. Despite the obvious harmful and detrimental effects these instances of ignorance have upon this student population, and that of the larger population, these attitudes remain a powerful force for AI/AN students considering whether or not they should pursue higher education. Higher education administrators must recognize this.

Several exemplary programs exist that all institutions may emulate in order to support AI/AN students. Support for American Indians at Ivy League Colleges can be seen in this article on Indian Country Today . These programs are advantageous in many ways for students, the campus community, as well as local and surrounding tribal nations.

Yet, we know that a vast majority of AI/AN students are attending public institutions. We also know that in recent years more public institutions have made efforts to promote inclusive environments where students of all racial/ethnic backgrounds maintain a sense of belonging. How are institutions working to combat such an incessant cycle of ignoring the needs of AI/AN students, and in turn, create a sense of belonging for this population?

One example institutions of higher education may look to is University of California, Los Angeles’s American Indian Recruitment (AIR) program. AIR provides educational support services for Native American college students in Southern California. AIR developed from the American Indian Student Association (AISA). According to their website, “AIR is the first student run, student initiated, student funded program in the nation, with the goal of increasing admission of American Indian students in higher education and at UCLA.” AIR serves students of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, public schools, Southern California reservations, and tribal programs. AIR conducts weekly tutoring, college workshops, and promotes higher education awareness. AISA also supports AI/AN student populations through a community college component, and Retention of American Indians Now! ( RAIN! ) which focuses on peertopeer counseling, mentorship, and wellness programs to promote student success.

Another example can be seen through programs such as College Horizons and Graduate Horizons . These programs prepare American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students for admission to undergraduate and graduate degree programs. College Horizons and Graduate Horizons staff partner with 4550 colleges such as ASU, University of Missouri Columbia, Northeastern University, University of California, Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia in order to provide In-depth perspectives of these institutions and assist students in the admissions process. In these programs, high school students and those interested in graduate studies participate in college counseling and admissions workshops. Such workshops focus specifically on the needs of AI/AN students and provide guidance regarding financial aid, assessments, resumes, personal statements, interviewing skills, and the common application. The proactiveness of these partnering institutions reveal to tribal communities that AI/AN students are valued and belong on college campuses.

Although critics may argue that AI/AN students do not account for a critical mass, or pursue higher education at rates comparable to other groups, this is the very reason why AI/AN students crucially need immediate reform and resources. Various admirable programs exist nationwide that institutions of higher education can learn from and work with to reach AI/AN students and ensure their persistence and success. The achievements of these programs demonstrate why others should be paying attention.

(All too often American Indian/Alaskan Native individuals are simply referenced by this blanket term and are agglomerated together as one homogenous group. Many are unaware that there are 567 federally recognized tribes; this does not account for tribes that have state recognition or those that are still fighting for recognition. For the purpose of this piece, I refer to indigenous peoples’ with this sweeping/wideranging term as is it is the primary means by which tribal populations have been identified and is also the leading method for such populations to be accounted for in the national census, in education, in employment, and in terms of funding. Yet, it is necessary to note how such a term connotes and reinforces a diminishing, incomplete picture of the various identities of individuals and their respective tribes and tribal communities.)

Elena Seymana Nourrie is a graduate student in the M. Ed. in Higher Education program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and strives to bridge Native American students and the academic setting.

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