UB Faculty And Staff Working to Keep Native Americans in College
Karlee Bigtree grew up on the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation, located about six hours away from Buffalo. While her sister became a teenage mother, her own mother was battling with substance abuse. Bigtree was the first in her family to graduate with a high school diploma.
Next spring, she will also be the first to graduate with a degree from college.
The junior business major and president of the Native American Peoples' Alliance at UB has had her share of adversity. That's why she plans to return to her reservation after graduation: to use her degree to help others who face adversity in her community.
"I heard an expression once: red on the outside, white on the inside. ‘Like an apple,' I hear people say on the reservation. ‘Yeah you look Native, but you're going to change by going off the reservation,'" Bigtree said. "But I didn't change. I'm still tied to my community and my culture. That was always my goal: to go back to my community after I graduate."
Native American college students attending SUNY colleges have stories similar to Bigtree's, but not all end with an optimistic outlook. Native American students have the highest college dropout rates of any other minority in the SUNY system, a trend that campus organizations and faculty at UB are working to reverse.
That includes Dr. David Patterson, assistant professor in the School of Social Work and director of the Native American Center for Wellness Research. Patterson spoke to a colleague on the scholarship committee at the university in 2006, expressing concern about finding students to apply for the Morris K. Udall scholarship, a merit-based scholarship open to Alaska Native or Native American students studying fields related to health care or tribal policy.
"Since this person [on the scholarship committee] had been at UB for 10 or 15 years, she has never been able to get native students to apply for her scholarship. That sort of set the ball rolling of, ‘What is going on with the native population here at UB?'" Patterson said.
While investigating, Patterson uncovered some unsettling statistics from data collected over a 30-year period. Fifty-seven percent of Native American students at SUNY schools drop out before obtaining a degree. He also discovered that UB's admissions department was looking to match the minority retention of other public universities. He proposed one possible solution: create a Living and Learning Center in the Red Jacket dorm building on campus.
Under Patterson's direction, the Red Jacket Living and Learning Community Center, to be launched in the fall of 2012, will allow incoming Native freshmen to find each other, dorm and socialize with each other, and study together throughout their undergraduate careers. A variety of resources will be offered, including scholarships and study abroad opportunities. Living and Learning Community models – such as the UB Undergraduate Academies, a program that brings together faculty, staff, and students with common research interests and areas of study – are proven to increase GPA scores, college retention rates, and overall college experiences, according to Patterson.
"Support [for Native students] needs to be provided from recruitment to graduation. There needs to be this complete cycle, where it's uninterrupted," Patterson said. "The Living and Learning Center can help fill in those gaps."
The Center can especially help students who are leaving their reservations for the first time to attend college, according to Patterson.
"It's a culture shock. Especially coming from the Akwesasne reservation, which is really prideful in where you come from and being Mohawk essentially…then you come to a university and you're one out of thousands, and that's kind of taken away," said Beynan Ransom, a graduate student in the department of civil, structural, and environmental engineering and a member of the Native Graduate Student Association. "It's a foundational part of who you are, but then you're put in an environment where that means nothing."
But it does mean something, according to UB admissions advisor Amanda Casali. She developed the Native American Outreach Day program in November 2009 as a means of recruiting local Native high school students to UB. Each year, prospective students are invited on campus to tour facilities such as the Intercultural Diversity Center and to attend the annual Native American Bazaar, a cultural celebration showcasing traditional dances, storytelling, and other important aspects of Native culture.
"I hear positive remarks from the high-school counselors who bring the students, and I typically go to them for feedback. I have seen that we do receive applications from students that attend the event, and many do enroll here," Casali said.
One of her goals in establishing the program was to assure Native students that they are not alone. Another was to teach them the power in having a degree.
"I can't get them through college if they're not in college," Casali said.
Since Casali began working in the admissions office in 2009, she has helped to more than double the number of Native students who enroll. In 2009, over 50 students enrolled at UB. Last year, 371 Native students applied to the university, and about 150 of those students enrolled.
But why don't they stay?
The fear of a stripped identity and a weak support system are two of several reasons why Native American students get discouraged from continuing on in their studies at a university or enrolling at a university at all, according to Casali. In some Native communities, pursuing a higher education is looked down upon, as it removes the individual from tradition. Many students thus succumb to the pressure exerted by friends and family to remain on the reservation.
Rebecca, a sophomore psychology major who did not want her last name published, sometimes can not help but to feel detached from her Cattaraugus reservation, the Seneca Indian Nation, located about 45 minutes south of UB.
"[The elders] kind of don't ask you to help out with tribal ceremonies or anything if you're not going to be there. I still go when I can, but when I do, they kind of look at me like I shouldn't be there because I abandoned them," Rebecca said. "I still go to ceremonies to show that I still want to be involved."
Despite a handful of resources that await Native students once they arrive on campus, Patterson firmly believes that more can be done on the university's end in order to ensure that they are guaranteed the optimal college experience.
"[The problem of Native retention] is complicated. There's really no silver bullet to this, so my idea was that you've got to start with something," Patterson said. "If the university is serious about keeping minority students in school, they need to put some resources into the system [like the Red Jacket Living and Learning Community Center]. A little bit of momentum matters."
Full disclosure: Jessica Brant is the vice-president of the Native American Peoples' Alliance.