Success Academy: How Native American Students Prepare for College (and How Colleges Can Prepare for Them)

May 2nd, 2015 | By | Category: 26-4: Tribal College Governance, Media Reviews
By Carmelita Lamb

Success Academy: How Native American Students Prepare for College (and How Colleges Can Prepare for Them)By MaryJo Benton Lee
Peter Lang (2013)
187 pages

Review by Carmelita Lamb

In her new book, MaryJo Benton Lee leads us through a richly detailed journey of her relationship with Flandreau Indian School (FIS) and South Dakota State University (SDSU), spanning 12 years and hundreds of American Indian high-school students. Through the Success Academy program, Indian boarding school students were permitted to enter into the mysterious and somewhat forbidding world of mainstream higher education. Benton Lee describes the birth of this culturally based program for Indian secondary students, one of the most innovative of its kind.

Success Academy recounts the many hours of dedicated effort Benton Lee and her partners put forth to bring the dream of a college education for Native students to reality. This book is compelling in many ways. The testimony of the students who participated in this program speaks of their surprise to find SDSU faculty and administrators so welcoming; FIS instructors who accompanied their students on multiple field experiences over the span of their high-school years describe the SDSU leaders as patient. They allowed FIS students to set the tone of the visits by bringing the culture of each student directly into their experiences in order to contextualize higher learning. Particular attention was made to ensure strong mentorship and relational ties between students and SDSU faculty, staff, students, and administrators. Through these relationships Benton Lee illustrates the influence of recognizing ethnic identity and the importance of Indian students visualizing themselves as college students within their own perception of being Indian.

Perhaps the most intriguing chapter in the book speaks to “border crossing.” Not only are FIS Indian students crossing an unchartered border into the land of higher education, but the faculty and administrators at SDSU also cross a border into deeper understanding of another culture and way of life. “Every time [students] visit SDSU, they bravely cross borders from a small, all- Indian, closed-campus high school into a large, overwhelmingly white, mainstream university,” Benton Lee says. Border crossing also occurred on a macro level which influenced institutional decision-making, leading to the program’s funding. Unfortunately, the eventual retraction of those funds ultimately contributed to the collapse of the program.

Success Academy is a detailed account which provides the reader with specific strategies for equipping American Indian high school students with the vital tools necessary for success in the face of barriers. Benton Lee addresses academic preparation, but more importantly she illuminates the cultural, social, and economic capital and the importance of being able navigate in the mainstream environment with confidence. This ability, the author argues, has greater influence upon American Indian student persistence in higher education. Throughout her book, Benton Lee references noted Native scholars, including Pavel, Brayboy, and Tippeconnic, as well as scholars such as Deyhle, Huffman, Freire, and countless others too numerous to list. Success Academy is a detailed and richly descriptive piece; it is a recommended read for all scholars and educators who wish to further the educational potential of marginalized high-school students of color. For tribal college educators and American Indian studies faculty, it is a must read.

Carmelita Lamb, Ph.D. (Lipan Apache), is chair of the Department of Graduate Studies and Distance Education at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

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