Never Too Young to Learn

Nov 15th, 2009 | By | Category: 21-2: K-12 Education, Winter 2009, Features, K-12
By Patty Talahongva

10,000 LAKES. Water quality is important to all residents of Minnesota. STAR Student David Tyndall learns from Jodi Rushman about using a water temperature probe as Hershel Ogema, program assistant, watches. Photo by Mark Lewer

Each semester, hundreds of children find themselves on the campus of a tribal college or university. While their parents are busy working toward that associate’s or bachelor’s degree, the children are getting their own dose of college life.

From Ilisagvik College in Barrow, AK—the “northernmost accredited community college”—to Tohono O’odham Community College in Arizona along the United States-Mexico border, tribal colleges are broadening their visions of education in Indian Country. Their focus may be college students, but they are also reaching out to introduce higher education to little ones still in diapers and those approaching adolescence.

Some of the programs are geared toward making sure these young learners have a healthy outlook on higher education. Other programs help parents as they strive to reach their own collegiate goals.

Though most educators acknowledge you can’t force someone to attend college, you can show them various programs and help them feel comfortable on a college campus and understand the rigors of semester coursework. Getting American Indian students comfortable with the idea of going to college and nurturing their confidence for success creates a good foundation.

Thanks to the dual credit programs many tribal colleges and universities have, high school students can earn college credits. Such programs offer many advantages, according to Consuelo Lopez, president of Comanche Nation College (CNC) in Lawton, OK. (At this time, high school students can take courses at the college even though it is still in the accreditation process; currently, the program is run through Cameron University in Lawton.)

Comanche Nation College serves 29 tribes in the state. As high school students attend classes on campus, they become familiar with the uniqueness of a tribal college. “As a Comanche center, we offer indigenous course work,” says Lopez: “Comanche language, Kiowa, and Pawnee.”

The faculty and staff are also learning the Comanche language, whether or not they are members of the tribe; they know enough to greet the students and say they work at CNC. Her staff consists of mostly tribal members who also serve as natural role models for the students. (CNC is one of four tribal colleges in the state, two of which are members of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.)

Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, WA, just opened an Early Learning Center to serve students with children. They have room for 18 infants and will accept children from one month to three and a half years old. While their top priority will be college student parents, if they have room, they will serve children of the faculty, staff, and the community.

In North Dakota, Sitting Bull College is partnering with state universities to offer “Entrepreneurship Summer Camps.” Children in grades kindergarten through eight will have the chance to create not just their own business but to also establish their own currency and elect their own leaders. The goal is to give them hands-on experience learning the skills and attitudes associated with academic, economic, and social success. Organizers hope they will also learn how to work with others, take risks intelligently, and be resilient as well as creative.

Tribal colleges operate diverse programs for younger students, some of which are described in more detail in these pages. In addition, every educator has a wish list and is seeking additional ideas on how to serve these younger students as well as the tribal communities.

Leech Lake Tribal College President Dr. Ginny Carney, for example, hopes for a mobile water quality laboratory. She’s a descendent of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. “There’s not another one within 200 miles of the reservation,” she says. If the tribal college in Cass Lake, MN, gets a mobile lab, they can take it to different schools on the reservation and region and teach students about water quality.

Every bit helps in the long term when it comes to increasing the number of American Indian college graduates. “We had 40 graduates this year – that is a record for us – and 24 of them are enrolling in a four-year program,” says Carney, adding confidently: “We know we’re making a difference in the community.”

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