Family Services Model Expanded Nationally

Aug 15th, 2002 | By | Category: 14-1: Honoring Our Students, Tribal College News
By Ron Selden

Iris HeavyRunner: "We always look to our family first." Photo by Ron Selden

A major project to keep American Indian students in school is expanding its reach across the country. “We wanted to adapt this [model] so it was applicable both to tribal colleges and mainstream colleges and universities,” said coordinator Iris HeavyRunner, a Blackfeet tribal member who is working on a doctorate in social work. “[Now] it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Since grant funding for the project expired last year, HeavyRunner has introduced the model to other tribal and non-tribal schools across the nation, including the University of Washington in Seattle. She also has planted the program’s seeds at Red Crow Community College in Standoff, Alberta. New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College is next on the list. She also has been fine tuning the training for school counselors.

Development of the program, called the Family Education Model, stemmed from federal welfare program changes that abruptly pushed many tribal members off assistance rolls and into school and the workplace. The four-year project’s main goal was to examine why some Indian students stay in college while others drop out. The project was created by Fort Peck Community College administrators, funded with support from the W.K. Kellogg and Ford foundations, and coordinated by HeavyRunner. (See TCJ, Vol 12, N.4, pp.10-13.)

Above all, the project found that successful students build a closely-knit support network around themselves as they make the transition into postsecondary academics, “We always look to our family first,” says HeavyRunner. “If that’s not there, we look to our friends. Those students who are successful have at least one person they can depend on.”

While all the identified support factors may be in place, Indian students still may fail in college if they don’t have adequate care for their children while they are in class or studying, if they don’t have dependable transportation, if they don’t have help tackling academic problems, or if they’re suffering from extended grief or depression, she said. College officials need to be aware of other barriers to success when working with Indian students, including geographic isolation, poverty, unemployment, housing shortages, single parenting, and multigenerational psychic trauma.

“You cannot dismiss these things in anything you do with Indian students,” she advises. Indian students often face a challenge in teaching their families about the demands of their education. Some family members, for example, may become resentful about taking care of children while their relative attends college. HeavyRunner says having a family member going to school full time “takes lots of adaptation for everyone.”

For more information, contact Iris HeavyRunner by email <> or phone (612) 991-1489. Ron Selden is a freelance writer and photographer based in Helena, MT.

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