Picture this - it’s a fresh fall morning, cool and colorful from the crunchy leaves. Your professor just dismissed your college class, so you’re rushing to the next one, coffee and books in tow. Maybe you’re picturing a small, private institution like Wellesley College, or a sprawling university like the University of Florida, my alma mater (Go Gators!).
But in the blur of faces you picture filling your campus, how many are Native American? If you’re honest, you probably pictured none. And here’s the thing - that does not make you racist. It makes you perceptive. As of 2002, Native Americans represented less than 1% of all college-enrolled students.
It’s 2017, you say. Why is this relevant?
Because nothing has changed.
In his research paper, “It’s About Family: Native American Student Persistence in Higher Education,” Raphael M. Guillory searches for answers to this tragedy. “To say that Native Americans are ill-prepared for college only scratches the surface of a deep, historically unresolved problem--getting Native American students through the mainstream higher education pipeline,” writes Guillory. So where is the disconnect between high school and college? Why aren’t Native American students attending university, and if they are, why aren’t they staying?
To explore these questions, Guillory prepared a study in which he interviewed thirty Native American students from three American universities. After conducting a focus group at each university, Guillory was able to condense the students’ responses into three “persistence factors” and four “barriers.” “Persistence factors,” are forces which encourage the students to stay in school, while the barriers, naturally, are obstacles to their attendance.
While I expected some of these factors, others surprised me. I believe that understanding issues is crucial to affecting change, so I want to share Guillory’s findings with you. I’ll begin with the Barriers.
Barrier #1: FAMILY
My heart hurt while reading this. We all want our family’s support, so I understand why lacking it would deter a potential student from attending university.
“When I got into a PhD program, I called my parents to tell them how happy I was,” reflects a former student. “They’ve always supported me in my bachelor’s degree, but the first thing [my father said was,] when am I gonna stop playing school?” Another student recalled his family turning its back on him, saying, “He just acts ‘White’ now.”
Barrier #2: SINGLE PARENTHOOD
It’s well-known how stressful college is. Add on single parenthood and the stress level skyrockets. This is especially true for single parents who move closer to a college with their high school-aged children. In addition to adjusting to a predominately White community, these children typically experience racism and bullying. One single mother shared that her son was cruelly called a 'prairie n***er,' but that he bravely fought his way through the experience.
Barrier #3: INADEQUATE FINANCIAL SUPPORT
All the students participating in this research study had been able to secure financial aid. However, most Native American students are not aware of all available scholarships, or how to apply to them. This acts as a barrier just as much as lack of funding.
Barrier #4: LACK OF ACADEMIC PREPARATION
“Native American students who recently graduated from high school on Indian reservations experienced similar academic problems as current nontraditional Native American college students who graduated from Indian reservation high schools some 20 years earlier," notes Guillory. "Academic deficiencies in English and math seemed to cross generations.” Because of this, many Native American students are afraid to ask questions in class for fear of looking stupid in front of their White peers.
Persistence Factor #1: FAMILY
Yes, this is both a barrier and a persistence factor - and for good reason. Many Native American students persevere through college in hopes of bettering their family’s lives, despite the obstacles in doing so. This is a “reflection of an Indigenous philosophy of putting community before individualism,” writes Guillory.
Persistence Factor #2: GIVING BACK TO TRIBAL COMMUNITY
“I have a lot of family that still live on the reservation, and most of my cousins don't have high school degrees,” says one student on his motivation to finish college. “Maybe I can serve as a role model.” Recognizing that their college attendance can inspire others to follow suit is a strong motivator for many Native American students.
Persistence Factor #3: ON-CAMPUS SOCIAL SUPPORT
Native American upperclassmen noted their White peers’ encouragement as contributing to their continued attendance. One student commented that her fellow students’ support made her “feel really good...They know that I’ve lasted this long...I’m still here...and I’m not going anywhere.”
Feeling inspired? Good! Now that we are equipped with knowing the sources of the issue, we are better prepared to address it. Here at the Lab, we are so excited to be doing our part to create encouraging, engaging, and accepting learning environments for our country’s Native students. Many of these barriers can be easily improved on - and we are ready for the challenge. Are you?
Guillory, Raphael M. “It’s About Family: Native American Student Persistence in Higher Education.” The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 79, No. 1. January/February 2008. Southeastern Oklahoma State University. http://www.se.edu/ Web. September 26, 2017.