Pathways for Indian Student Success

Student affairs specialists promote ideas for helping a diverse population succeed.
March 15, 2006

American Indian students are the least likely of all college-goers to earn a degree, and they’re more likely than members of any other racial group to drop out, according to federal data. Research to date hasn’t been able to explain all of the hows and whys behind this phenomenon, but many student affairs professionals say that it’s time to tackle the problem.

Leaders of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, an organization that represents about 11,000 student affairs officials in higher education, have taken note of the complex issues that face American Indian students. While the organization has been holding its annual convention for 88 years, this year, for the first time ever, addressing the recruitment and retention of American Indian students has played a substantial role at the meeting, due largely to the concerns of administrators who serve such students -- both at mainstream institutions and at tribal colleges and universities.

“We wanted to make sure that there was always a place for indigenous peoples in NASPA,” said Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, executive director of the organization, at a special day-long “Summit on Serving Native American Students: From Discussion to Action,” which was held on Sunday. The forum highlighted the formation of a new NASPA-affiliated group called the Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community, which is intended as a network for administrators nationwide to share best practices for serving Indian students. A new listserv is also in the works.

“We are past the time for talking,” said Henrietta Mann, a professor emeritus in Native American Studies at Montana State University at Bozeman, during her keynote address. “We need to establish effective action plans to maintain our historical cultures and to shape the future for Native American students in higher education.” 

George S. McClellan, vice president for student development at Dickinson State University, in North Dakota, said that Indian students tend not to use student services, and that those services that they do use tend to be focused on financial aid. His findings came as a result of a recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona, which has one of the largest Indian populations of all mainstream institutions in the country. He said that colleges need to incorporate incentives for getting students to seek service. At the University of North Dakota, for example, a student must visit the Native student affairs at least two times a year in order to be eligible for tuition assistance programs

“Both Native and non-Native professionals and professional associations must play a role in bringing about the needed changes in higher education with respect to better serving Native American students,” said McClellan. “A critical component in achieving the goal of increasing rates of participation and persistence is to recognize and act on the knowledge that building student success begins long before Native students arrive on campus.” Based on his own observations, he said that having American Indian faculty members and staff tends to help Indian students feel more connected to their campuses.

Shelly Lowe, a student service provider at the University of Arizona, said that higher education professionals need to become aware of and make use of indigenous theories, models and practices in seeking to support Native American students, staff and faculty. She said that a book she co-authored with McClellan and Mary Jo Tippeconic Fox, Serving Native American Students, which is available online, provides several examples that have been helpful for some Indian students.

“Footnotes indicating that findings on Native Americans are not statistically significant and so are omitted from the research are too often the only reference to Native Americans in much of the literature in higher education,” added Lowe. She suggested that although qualitative research is often more time-consuming than quantitative research that this methodology could be helpful. 

Ruth Harper, a professor of counseling and students affairs at South Dakota State University, said that qualitative research is one of the best ways to understand Indian students, even though one cannot make generalizations from it. She recently used the method to study several Lakota male students who attend Sinte Gleska University, in South Dakota.  For these men, she said integrating aspects of American Indian culture with counseling was important to them, as were ways to address concrete issues, including travel, costs and child care.  One man told Harper that the Lakota language courses he has taken at the university "mean my life." 

Many administrators at the summit said they weren’t under the impression that forming an action-focused committee would be a magic bullet. With 562 federally recognized tribes and many state-recognized tribes -- all with different cultures and languages, Indian students are one of the most heterogeneous groups around. Further complicating matters is that fact that some students are deeply concerned about making Native culture and language an integral part of their education, while others don’t hold this as a priority. 

Still, most said that focusing on culture is crucial -- not only in helping Native students succeed, but also in fostering generations of students who are connected to their unique histories. 

Along these lines, Mann said that indigenous people have a right to their own identities, languages and cultures, but that mainstream institutions of higher education often have not provided students with avenues to achieve these rights. “Language is the lifeblood of our cultures and is rooted in the Earth,” she said.  She added that no matter where an Indian student attends college, administrators have the obligation to honor students’ cultural heritage and spirituality, especially if they are expressing the desire for this kind of support.  She said that her own institution has worked diligently to strengthen its Native American Studies program, which currently offers a minor and master of arts degree.

“Cultural pluralism is a gift,” added Mann. “But too often we are left out of programs on campuses. We need to change that.” 

Several administrators who have collaborated with tribal colleges, said that such institutions are able to infuse language and culture into a student’s learning experience in ways that mainstream institutions often do not. Research indicates that tribal colleges have improved participation and persistence rates of American Indian students by creating culturally relevant learning environments.

Still, because many tribal colleges are two-year institutions, there was a general concern that the institutions cannot meet the full educational needs of many Indian students. Student affairs professionals at the summit said that mainstream institutions must find ways to collaborate with tribal college officials to learn what works for their students, and to determine what actions can be taken on campuses nationwide to improve the experience for Indian transfer students. 


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