By Harrison J. Boling, grade 12, *Comanche*

2011/2012 Reconnecting The Circle Essay Winner

Harrison J. Boling

Harrison J. Boling, *Comanche*

Every day after school they are waiting for me, neatly stacked on the kitchen counter: Smiling faces, stately buildings, stories of successful alumni. The college brochures entice me with their promises of a bright future.  Next fall I will be attending one of them, becoming the fourth person from my mom’s Comanche family to do so.  Thinking about college, I consider the typical questions, such as the size, academic difficulty, curricula, and location of schools.  Like many students coming from a Native American family, I also focus on a different question:  Will my background and heritage be respected on campus?  I come from a family that expects me to go to college.  Many Native American families, including my own extended family, struggle to pay for necessities on a daily basis.  Those who find their way to a college degree have a good chance of improving the standard of living not only for themselves, but for many future generations.  However, it is also important for me to be able to maintain ties to my world back home, as I move into a new world at school.  The best college experience is one that balances the values of family and tribe with the values of the mainstream world.

There are over 4,300 degree-granting two and four-year colleges in the US,[1] offering a seemingly vast array of higher education options available to all Americans, and the college participation rate is increasing for most racial and ethnic groups.  Yet, while over the past 27 years the percentage of 18- to 24-year olds enrolled in college has shown double-digit increases for Whites, Blacks and Hispanics, there was no increase over the same period in the percentage of Native Americans enrolled in college.[2]  In 2007, the median income for all households in the US was $50,740, but it was only $35,343 for Native American households.[3]  The percentage of Native families living in poverty in 2007 was 25.3%, higher than any other racial or ethnic group.[4]  This alarming trend of increasing, low-income existence threatens the welfare of tribes across the country.  This trend can be reversed by increasing the number of Native Americans who attend and graduate from college.  Encouraging Native youth to stay in school and pursue higher education would strengthen tribal communities and promote prosperity for generations to come.

In my family, my grandfather started the tradition of going to college, but it was not a straight or easy path for him.  Grandpa Clifton and his brother grew up in southern Oklahoma.  Their father, cursed by gambling and alcohol addiction, abandoned the family.  My great-grandma was struck with tuberculosis, and my grandpa and great-uncle were sent to the Fort Sill Indian School.  Anxious to improve his circumstances, Clifton dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Marines.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, an eighth-grade education was considered doing well for Native Americans.[5]  However, after Clifton finished his service, he took advantage of the GI Bill that supplied him with a paid education, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oklahoma.  For 12 years he worked as a television repairman to support his young family, but he also pursued his dream of better opportunities by earning a law degree at night school.  His perseverance led to the first professional job in his family’s history.  It was this dedication that inspired my mom’s and my brother’s education, and in turn, I will carry on the tradition.

Why don’t more Native youth take the path to a college degree?   A common reason for the choice to not go or drop out is the difficulty of transitioning from local community life to life on campus far away.  The culture of some colleges is far too different from Native communities to permit a young person to adapt quickly.  Elaine Kasch, Supervisor of Indian Education for the Flagstaff Unified School District, says that Native American students living away from home “have to balance living in two worlds constantly.”[6]  According to Benny Shendo Jr., head of Native American Programs at the University of New Mexico, the culture shock for some Native students coming to the university can be worse than for other students:  “That struggle to fit into a whole different worldview, different from their own, is complex.”[7]  Because of their small population on most campuses, Native college students may have trouble feeling a sense of camaraderie with other students.  Lori LaTender, Program Director at Menominee (Wisconsin) Indian High School, comments that at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a university with 40,000 students, “You’re lucky if you see another Native American.”[8]

Some colleges are taking a positive step to integrate Native values into mainstream culture by establishing a Native American program and hiring a director who will promote awareness of Native heritage and values among the faculty, staff, and students.  Many of these schools have a dedicated gathering place open to all students to serve as a cultural center for Native-themed events.  Elaine Kasch notes that training teachers to be more aware of their Indian students’ backgrounds is one key to helping students succeed.  “Instead of looking at Native American students as having deficits . . . , recognize that these students bring a rich culture and heritage to the classroom that can be shared with other students.”[9]  According to Wayne Stein, a professor in the Montana State University Department of Native American Studies, “The university has to make a special effort within the faculty ranks to reach out to American Indian students. . . . The first thing a university needs to look at is itself and ask, ‘Do we have a place on this campus that makes American Indian students feel welcome?’”[10]

I will seek balance in my life as a college student by choosing a school that promotes appreciation of Native American values and that has a thriving Native American community on campus.  A Native group at college offers a place to come to meet other Native students, discuss issues and offer support to each other.  An active Native group can also inform the rest of the campus community on Native American culture and concerns, which could help break down ignorance and stereotypes that are barriers to Native student success.  Some colleges celebrate annual powwows and other traditional ceremonies.  These events, open to all on campus, help shed light on traditional Native values in a welcoming and festive way.  By attending a college that integrates Native American values into mainstream campus culture, Native students can ease the transition from community to campus life, bring balance to their lives, and succeed in earning a college degree.

 

 Works Cited

Bishaw, Alemayehu and Jessica Semega. Income, Earnings, and Poverty Data From the 2007 American Community Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008.

Montoya, Susan.  “American Indians Struggle to Feel at Home on Campus; Education:  Colleges search for ways to provide Native American students with cultural and academic support in hopes of recruiting and retaining them.”  Los Angeles Times 12 Sept. 1999, Bulldog ed.: 1. ProQuest Platinum. Web 22 Feb. 2011.     http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=16&did=44619740&SrchMode=1&sid=5&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1298438227&clientId=16512.

“National Center for Educational Statistics.”  Student Research Center Gold.  N.p., 2009.  Web. 22 Feb. 2011. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=84.

“National Center for Educational Statistics.”  Student Research Center Gold.  N.p., 2009.  Web. 22 Feb. 2011. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010015/indicator6_23.asp.

Teicher, Stacy A. “America’s first students get a second look; US schools strive to close the learning gap for native American students – who often struggle to straddle two worlds.” The Christian Science Monitor 22 Mar. 2005, All ed.: 11. ProQuest Platinum. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <http://proquest.umi.com/‌pqdweb?index=8&did=810439121&SrchMode=2&sid=5&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1298438025&clientId=16512>.

Ziff, Deborah. “Tribal youth have their own college; The College of Menominee nation helps Native Americans expand their education in a nurturing setting.” Madison Newspapers 19 Sept. 2010, All ed.: A1. ProQuest Platinum. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <http://proquest.umi.com/‌pqdweb?index=16&did=2142474221&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1298437524&clientId=16512://>.

 


[1] “National Center for Educational Statistics,” Student Research Center Gold, n.p., 2009,  Web, 22 Feb. 2011, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=84.

[2] “National Center for Educational Statistics,”  Student Research Center Gold, n.p., 2009,  Web, 22 Feb. 2011, http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010015/indicator6_23.asp.

 [3]Alemayehu Bishaw and Jessica Semega, Income, Earnings, and Poverty Data From the 2007 American Community Survey (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008) 3.

 [4]Bishaw 20.

 [5] Stacy A. Teicher, “America’s first students get a second look; US schools strive to close the learning gap for native American students – who often struggle to straddle two worlds,” The Christian Science Monitor 22 Mar. 2005, All ed.: 11, ProQuest Platinum, Web, 22 Feb. 2011, <http://proquest.umi.com/‌pqdweb?index=8&did=810439121&SrchMode=2&sid=5&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1298438025&clientId=16512>.

 [6] Qtd. in Teicher.

 [7] Qtd. in Susan Montoya, “American Indians Struggle to Feel at Home on Campus; Education:  Colleges search for ways to provide Native American students with cultural and academic support in hopes of recruiting and retaining them,”  Los Angeles Times 12 Sept. 1999, Bulldog ed.: 1, ProQuest Platinum, Web 22 Feb. 2011, http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=16&did=44619740&SrchMode=1&sid=5&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1298438227&clientId=16512.

 [8] Qtd. in Deborah Ziff, “Tribal youth have their own college; The College of Menominee nation helps Native Americans expand their education in a nurturing setting,” Madison Newspapers 19 Sept. 2010, All ed.: A1, ProQuest Platinum, Web. 22 Feb. 2011, <http://proquest.umi.com/‌pqdweb?index=16&did=2142474221&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1298437524&clientId=16512://>.

 [9] Qtd. in Teicher.

 [10] Qtd. in Montoya.

 

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