The university experience wasn’t ‘made for Native students like me’

At least 79 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada offer orientation programs for their first-year Native students

Lane Yazzie, Diné, is a fifth-year student at San Diego State University concentrating on interdisciplinary studies. Yazzie found the transition from high school to college as difficult.

Yazzie uses gender neutral pronouns, they/them, to match their identity.

“How did I, a high-achieving rez kid, get kicked out of college?” they asked themselves. “Then I realized this university wasn’t made for Native students like me and that's why I failed.”

Yazzie almost quit.

Instead Yazzie’s lived experience is a way to validate other Native students. They have since worked to become a mentor to peers and even to help develop the first Native American resource center at San Diego State.

They ultimately hope to go to graduate school to work with recruitment and retention of Native students in post-secondary education. “This work is very rewarding and I think that’s where I found my niche of a career,” Yazzie said.

Fall marks the beginning of a new school year. For many first-time college students, it means familiarizing themselves with a new campus, learning how to read a syllabus and buying textbooks. This time of transition is a big step for any college student.

For Indigenous scholars, in particular, however, it means that and a lot more.

Research published in February by the National Center for Education Statistics show that Native students make up less than 1 percent of all college students in the United States. It also shows that of all Native students seeking a bachelor’s degree, only 23 percent of them finish in four years.

Other researchers have found that the first year in a college student’s career is the most important. Scholars, like Amanda R. Tachine, Diné, say that students who have a sense of belonging at their school have an increased chance of returning for their second year.

For many years college students have expressed a lack of support in their higher-education goals. Now, programming through universities like Arizona State and San Diego State, as well as college-success programs like College Horizons are playing a part in changing that.

Indian Country Today found at least 79 colleges and universities have college orientation programs geared specifically towards their Native students. And at least 10 others provide orientation programs for their students of color.

An example of this includes the Student Preparedness Initiative: Readiness Inspired by Tradition, nicknamed “SPIRIT,” at Arizona State University. The program began in 2014 and helps first year students acclimate to the ASU community by connecting them with resources, scholarship, internships and other events.

All incoming first-year Indigenous students at ASU are able to attend the two-week event, free of charge. They also have the option of living in an ASU dormitory before school begins.

SPIRIT is staffed through the American Indian Student Support Services team at ASU. Their interim director, Laura Gonzales-Macias, Tarahumara Tribe of Mexico, says the program is a highlight of her job.

“We are very lucky to have the students come to SPIRIT and to ASU,” Gonzales-Macias said. “I try to remind them that they are needed here and that they add value to this university.”

<em>A group of participants, peer ambassadors and staff pose for a photo at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, Arizona, during the SPIRIT Program.</em>(Photo by Aliyah Chavez)

This year’s cohort of participants included 84 first-year students, many who are 17 or 18 years old and are first-generation college students. One of those participants is Taylor Tahbo, who says he is already benefiting from building community through the program.

Tahbo says he grew up with parents in the military, which meant he rarely had the opportunity to contemplate his native identity. Participating in the program changed that.

“Coming here, where I can be around Native people, and be myself, has been like nothing else I’ve ever experienced in life,” Tahbo said.

Students participated in presentations on financial responsibility, how to pick a major, time management and ice cream social, amongst other things.

Other schools like San Diego State University have similar goals in supporting their students.

The Elymash Yuuchaap (which is the Kumeyaay way to say, “youth think”): Indigenous Scholars and Leaders Program has a vision to retain and graduate their Indigenous students. They do so by providing their students with culturally-sensitive support to their students.

<em>San Diego State University hosts a variety of programming to support their students including Howka Weekend, an event for admitted indigenous students and their families.</em>(Photo courtesy of Lane Yazzie)

In New Mexico, programs like College Horizons, aim to support scholars starting in high school and see them through graduate school. The nonprofit organization has three programs: College Horizons, the Scholars Program, and Graduate Horizons.

The Horizon Scholars Program acts as an orientation, “bridge” program for students transitioning from high school to college. It is a three-weeks, all-expense paid summer program hosted at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

<em>The 2019 Scholars cohort, faculty and interns pose for a photo at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.</em>(Photo courtesy of Mikaela Crank)

College Horizons’ self-reports that 55 percent of their scholars experience some form of racism at their college campuses. A key part of the scholars programs aims to “holistically” prepare their students by having them participate in a lecture-based course taught by Adrienne Keene, Cherokee, who is an assistant professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University.

The course, Settler Colonialism, Resistance and Resilience, teaches students about what they might face in college. By the end of the course, students walk away with an understanding of what settler colonialism is, an understanding of its role in contemporary Native communities, how to resist it though activism, law, policy and research and how to understand Indigenous scholarship.

During their time in this program, students are encouraged to be “unapologetically Indigenous,” said Mikaela Crank, Diné, and director of the College Horizons Scholars Program. And “to uphold western and Indigenous ways of knowing without compromise at their higher educational institutions.”  

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today based in Phoenix. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez

If you know of any orientation programs to add to our list of colleges and universities, email our reporter Aliyah Chavez at