Serving Students Means Thinking about Communities

Nov 15th, 1989 | By | Category: 1-3: Students: Coming In, Building Skills, Moving On, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

STUDENT STUDYINGFor tribal colleges, service to students must mean more than providing classrooms and Coke machines. In many reservation com­munities the path from school to college and beyond is often blocked by barriers rarely associated with “typical” college life. To provide true educational opportunity, these colleges must look to the broader community and into the lives of those who enter their institutions:

  • A 36-year-old single mother with three chil­dren who works to earn a degree while trying to adequately shelter and feed her family. A degree will provide new opportunities, but for now college is a burden and a sacrifice.
  • A young man who lives on a sprawling reser­vation in the northern Plains, he commutes to campus each day from his parents’ home, often in bad weather. When his car breaks down and he doesn’t have the money for repairs, he misses class and considers leaving school.
  • Another student who did poorly in high school and dropped out—twice—from a public university in a distant city. He is now enrolled in the local tribal college, hoping to succeed but expecting to fail.

Not all students at tribal colleges are so bur­dened, but these examples are not extreme. Every institution has many students very similar to those mentioned here. And, overall, students at tribal colleges are different in significant ways from the national norm. They are older, frequently in their 30s, and have obligations to family and community. At most colleges, female students dominate the enrollment and, of this group, many are single parents. For both men and women most are unem­ployed, underemployed or earn low wages. In each case, college is a financial burden.

Most students who graduate or successfully transfer to another institution are rewarded for their work. Research on student success is scattered, but for colleges that complete follow-up surveys, the results are encouraging. Dull Knife Memorial College reports, for example, that 83 percent of all its gradu­ates were working or in further study at the time of a recent survey. At Sisseton-Wahpeton Community College, 91 percent were employed or in four-year institutions. At Standing Rock College, only 5 of 228 graduates from 1976 to 1986 were known to not be working or employed. At each institution, these numbers contrast with reservation unemployment figures that typically are 70 to 80 percent.

But for students who arrive on campus for the first time, these examples can appear at best as distant promises. More pressing are the multiple emotional, financial and educational barriers they will face. For these people, even the act of entering college is a heroic statement of hope.

Tribal colleges offer these students several important advantages. First, they are located, in most cases, within reservation communities. Educa­tion does not mean leaving home and having greater financial burdens. Second, tribal colleges reflect the culture of the surrounding community and are more sensitive to the unique needs of Indian students. Third, they tailor their curricula to the needs of the reservation. Most students want employment that allows them to stay on their reservation. Tribally controlled colleges provide both degrees that allow for direct employment in the community and a general education for those who plan to continue their educa­tion elsewhere before returning.

But turning these institutional advantages into student success is a difficult task. The job of tribal colleges is not to simply provide a teacher and chalk­board in the center of a reservation, but to create a sympathetic and supportive environment that extends outward to the entire community and to all levels of the education pipeline. Few other colleges have given themselves the task of reaching so far— from preschools to universities, from the campus to the home.

Reaching Out

Nationwide, the percentage of Native Americans who graduate from high school and enter college is far smaller than their white counterparts. One 1976 government report found that only 55 percent of Indian students completed high school and just 17 percent enrolled in a college.

Increasingly, tribal colleges are working with elementary and secondary schools to build skills, confidence and explain that higher education is a re­alistic goal. Frequently, college staff talk to classes and some offer workshops for school teachers and administrators. In some cases, colleges are actually starting their own schools. Northwest Indian College, for example, is opening Middle College, a secondary school modeled after a similar institution at LaGuardia Community College in New York City. Other colleges offer preschools that not only offer care to the children of stu­dents, but promote pride in their Indian heritage from an early age.

Many students, however, never received a high school diploma. For them, the only opportu­nity for a college educa­tion is through comple­tion of a GED program. Most tribal colleges offer preparation classes for the high school equiva­lency test and many of those who pass the test go on to enroll in the tribal college. At Oglala Lakota College, about 40 percent of the students entered after completing the GED exam.

Tribal college admin­istrators also see evidence that more students are completing school and entering college simply because the colleges exist. Instead of being a distant and abstract idea, higher education has become a visible force in Indian society. Confirmed one stu­dent at Turtle Mountain Community College: “There was nothing to look forward to before. Kids getting out of high school couldn’t expect to go to college. Now a lot more of them are going to the community college, and they know it’s a good college.”

Offering Support

But responsibility to students does not end when a student enrolls. Instead, each college offers aca­demic and emotional support to people who may be the first in their family to get a college education. Like most American colleges, they offer counselors and academic advisors. But the amount of attention a tribal college provides its students can be far more extensive than what is found at non-Indian institu­tions.

Peggy Stump, dean of student services at Fort Peck Community College, says greater personal attention is necessary because many students have competing obligations to family and, frequently, have limited expectations. “They come in with really negative attitudes,” she says. “They don’t know if they can do this.”

At her institution, students are followed closely and if someone starts missing class, Stump or another staff member may go out to the home. This attention, she says, is a motivating force. It “makes them feel like somebody cares if they get an edu­cation,” she says.

All tribal colleges offer similar programs and expect that support will come from all mem­bers of the college com­munity, from instructors to the president’s office.

Moving On

Finally, tribal col­leges must look beyond graduation day if they are to fully serve students. They must help develop an economy that can support an educated workforce and promote connections to other colleges and universities to help students who wish to continue their education.

Many tribal colleges are doing both. Promot­ing tribal economic development is a common priority for tribal colleges as these institutions work to build local businesses and lure outside investment (see Autumn 1989 issue). In addition, colleges are reaching out to non-Indian colleges, building connec­tions between disciplines and promoting programs that help students make the still difficult transition from tribal college life to these off-reservation institu­tions.

There are many students who do not make it this far. For all of their effort, the staff and faculty of tribal colleges cannot overcome every barrier. But it is also true that more Indian students are getting an education, finding new opportunity and building their communities because tribal colleges exist.

In this issue we look at some of the programs that work and a few of the students who have been helped.

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