Of the Community, By the Community, and For the Community

May 15th, 2001 | By | Category: 12-4: Colleges for the Community, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

After graduating from high school, I attended a small, liberal arts state college in Durango, Colo., and subsequently the University of Colorado in Boulder. Fort Lewis College perches on a mesa above the town of Durango. Although it’s a small college, the classrooms seemed comfortable and adequate, and we walked across acres of green grass to reach our classes. I lived in a dormitory with other women my age (18-21), mostly from Colorado but none of us were from Durango. We took ourselves very seriously and talked long into the night about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carl Jung, Martin Luther King, and Ayn Rand.

I am sure that some of my classmates struggled with genuinely serious problems, but I don’t remember them surfacing. Instead, we agonized about whether we would get a date, pass a final, or put the college newspaper out by the deadline.

Some classmates and I tutored at the local ghetto, Santa Rita, where we were exposed to a lifestyle and poverty that I found disturbing. I remember in particular a girl named Eva who wore bright red lipstick, smoked cigarettes, and played “Gloria” on the guitar as if she knew what it was all about. Eva, who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old, helped jostle me out of the Ivory Tower one evening a week. But when my work and study schedule became too demanding, I gave up the tutoring.

When Eunice Abrams attended Fort Peck Community College, she lived in a modest home with her three children and her husband, not in a dorm. Like me, she worried about getting good grades on her tests, but other concerns took precedence when a child was ill or her husband was diagnosed with diabetes and she had to find rides to the doctor. She and her classmates, both Indian and non-Indian, live on the Fort Peck Reservation, and most hope to work there after they graduate.

The tribal colleges and universities located on Indian reservations are not Ivory Towers standing above and beyond their communities. They cannot choose whether or not to get involved with local issues. They must.

Tribal college faculty and administrators see beyond the poverty and despair that overwhelms visitors. As members of the community, they look at a young woman balancing an infant on one hip and an armload of books on the other and know her as the miracle mom, who is caring for her ailing grandfather, working fulltime, and taking classes. Rather than dwelling on the fact that she is not married, they focus on how they can lighten her load.

The community’s problems are impossible for the colleges to ignore. Although the age of tribal college students is beginning to drop, the typical tribal college student for the last two decades has been a single mother in her late 20s. Thus if child care is not available, the college enrollment drops. If drugs or gangs are a problem on the reservation, the students are affected because their children, parents, or friends are affected.

The unemployment rate of Indians on tribal college reservations averaged 42 percent in 1995 compared to 6 percent for the U.S. population as a whole, according to a new report by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), “Building Strong Communities: Tribal Colleges as Engaged Institutions.” The poverty rates are similarly high.

The colleges must address the causes of poverty and other issues, as well as their symptoms. They recognize the validity of the Maslow hierarchy: They cannot take a student who is hungry and homeless and inspire him or her to dream about getting a master’s degree in physics.

Created of the community, by the community, and for the community, the tribal colleges and universities’ fate and that of their students is intertwined with the tribe’s fate.

Sample services

Colleges provide radio stations, workshops on racism, libraries and archives, entrepreneurial training, and community gardens – services that in many cases would not otherwise be available on the reservation. In the survey by AIHEC, almost half of the 33 colleges reported that they have campus day care and slightly more than half provide transportation. Other community services include:

On many reservations, the tribal college library is the only library. The archives at Little Big Horn College library include oral history interviews conducted by students and faculty with 75 tribal elders. Tribal archives are included in several of the AIHEC Cultural Learning Centers now being built with donated logs. The Internet stations at Sitting Bull College get extremely busy at 3:30 p.m. as local school children race to go on-line.

The children’s collection is not just for the students of Children’s Lit; it encourages all of the reservation children to discover the joy of reading. The colleges tackle the lack of basic education by providing GED (General Education Diploma) classes and testing. The number of students who earn GED at the Blackfeet Community College campus in some years exceeds the number of students graduating from high school.

Sitting Bull College started its own construction company, which helps renovate and replace houses on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Students in the building trades program do the work. One year, the college gave away two 2-bedroom houses to elderly people who had lived in condemned houses for over 10 years.

Dull Knife Memorial College provides a summer language camp and tipi raising contests that keep the traditional skills alive. Family members turn to the college for the correct spelling of Cheyenne names to use in obituaries, sometimes seeing those names written down for the first time.

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