Everyone is Someone at a Tribal College

Aug 15th, 2002 | By | Category: 14-1: Honoring Our Students, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

MeChelle Crazy Thunder’s voice cracked with emotion when she accepted her Student of the Year award. “When I went to school in Rapid City, they told us we wouldn’t amount to anything,” she told her fellow students at the American Indian College Fund reception March 27. “I was the first in my family to go to college. Then my younger brother and my cousin both started college. I started something in my family.” She concluded defiantly, “I’m going to amount to something!”

Despite what some public school teachers must have said to her many years ago, MeChelle is definitely going to amount to something, according to her teachers at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND, and to her fellow students. Now 30 years old, she was chosen by UTTC as its student of the year in the annual College Fund competition. Students from tribal colleges across the country elected her for the second year in a row as an officer of their Student Congress.

MeChelle is just one of the many students we on the TCJ staff meet when we visit tribal colleges, go to Student Congress meetings, and attend the annual American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Conference. The conference provides us with a treasured opportunity to watch students compete in the knowledge bowl, the science bowl, and the traditional handgames. We listen to their laughter and see their joyful hugs at reuniting with distant friends. When they stand side by side to carry the banners for their schools in the opening ceremonies, we see the future approaching.

Students are, after all, what education is all about. Our readers know this. That is why this issue of the journal is the readers’ favorite each year. It provides a window into the lives of tribal college students, similar to the insights we on the TCJ staff get when we attend the AIHEC conference. You hear in this issue from more than 20 students who speak in their poetry and short stories about their lives as students, as parents, and as grandchildren.

Tribal colleges serve students of all ages, interests, and backgrounds. Mothers in their 40s or 50s often graduate with one of their children in the same class. Students as young as 16 enroll in a tribal college, bored at their high schools and seeking more challenging curriculum. Indian students return to their parents’ reservations, trying to rediscover their roots. Non-Indians enroll, initially just looking for the closest college. We talked with one such student at the conference, a middle-aged, non-Indian man from a notoriously racist reservation border town. As he completed his fourth year and looked forward to his bachelor’s degree, he expressed his deep gratitude to the college and his fellow students, who had provided him with not only an academic education but also a social and cultural education about the neighbors he never knew before.

Tribal colleges and universities serve some students whom non-Indian colleges would not recruit. While some non-tribal institutions choose only the top SAT scores, tribal colleges accept students who have been told they will never amount to anything.

Most students attend college with students their own age, 18-22. Our parents and our friends’ parents encouraged us because many of them had attended college. In contrast, the majority of tribal college students were the first in their families to go beyond high school. The populations they serve are poor—the average per capita income on tribal college reservations was only $4,665 in 1990. Many are considered “high risk” because they dropped out of public schools and have only a GED (General Education Diploma).

The tribal institutions take everyone— the gifted, the recovering alcoholics, adults who were pushed out of the fifth or sixth grade, and students with a different language and culture from that of mainstream universities. They nurture students who are legally blind or undiagnosed dyslexics. Because reservation populations have high rates of death, accidents, and disease, instructors spend far more time than they would like at funerals and hospitals.

Fall 2001 enrollment data compiled by AIHEC indicate that females outnumber males by roughly two to one (65% to 35%). Most tribal college students are single parents, according to a survey of graduates from the spring of 1998, the last year such data was collected. Of the 242 who responded, 23% were non-Indian, 72% had children; 55% were unmarried. To most tribal college faculty and administrators, students are neither numbers nor high-risk profiles. They are people, people who deserve an education and who, when they discover their hidden talents, will use their education to become teachers, lawyers, computer technicians, or nurses.

MeChelle Crazy Thunder fits the statistics for the “typical” tribal college student in some ways. At 30, she is older than the conventional college student. Her parents did not attend college. When she was nominated for the Student of the Year award, she and her husband had four children ranging in age from five weeks to 10 years old.

Her instructors at UTTC recognized her unique qualities. Families often have been perceived as a major barrier to academic success for Indian students, but to MeChelle, her children were her inspiration. She was on the president’s list every semester, as well as serving as the president of the student senate. She graduated in May with an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education, and now she is working on her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education at UTTC.  Ultimately, she wants to teach second grade on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In their personal statements in this issue, students testify that their small children inspired them to clean up their lives and to aspire toward professional careers. Several tribal colleges have begun to provide services for not just individual students but also families.

At large universities, it is easier for the individual faces of students to get buried in the statistics, test scores, and the strategic plans. While researching the importance of a support system to Indian students, Dr. Annmaria Rousey and Erich Longie found a chilling example of this. They were looking at attrition and retention statistics at a tribal college, Cankdeska Cikana Community College in North Dakota, and comparing them with two non-tribal colleges.

The researchers found that the tribal college calculated its graduation rates by subtracting the students who died. The researchers asked the staff at two mainstream institutions whether they made similar adjustments. The non-tribal school personnel said,  “We have no way of knowing whether or not the student is deceased….A lot of times we just have no idea what happened to them.” When they asked the CCCC registrar’s office a parallel question, she replied with shocked disbelief, “Would I not know if a student had died or not? With all due respect, Dr. Rousey, that has got to be the stupidest question anyone has ever asked me!”

The non-tribal institution literally did not know if the student was alive or dead, much less the state of their family life. Instructors at tribal colleges know not only whether the student is alive but often know if the student’s child is sick or his car is broken down. They encourage students like MeChelle to believe in themselves. As a result, such students amount to something, something important. They contribute to their families, their communities, and to society as a whole.

Marjane Ambler has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 1995. For more information, see the following publications. Sallie Mae Education Institute (2000). Creating Role Models for Change: a Survey of Tribal College Graduates, which is available on the Institute for Higher Education Policy website <www.ihep.com>. Rousey, A., & Longie, E. (2001). The tribal college as family support system. American Behavioral Scientist, 44 (9), 1492-1504.

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