The Organization Getting American Indians To College
Not many American Indian students finish high school and go on to receive a college education. According to a recent survey from nativepartnership.org, only 17 percent of American Indian students go on to continue their education after high school, compared to 60 percent of white students.
The dramatic disparities in graduation rates between native and non-native students is said to be the result of inadequate funding and resources for the native students living in rural areas of the country. However, RJ Munoa, a Pechanga tribe leader from Temecula, California, also mentions that the lack of college-educated students could be a result of the culture on some American Indian reservations.
“In [some American Indian tribal cultures], going to college is not really a positive thing,” says Muno when I asked him about the way college education is perceived. “[So when you come back to the reservation] people don’t trust your philosophies because now you’ve been ‘indoctrinated’ by the system. It takes a lot to actually go to college [and then come back] and have your community respect you enough to want to listen to what you have to say.”
Why college education is so important to American Indians
Stephenie Vincenti, community leader and Zuni tribe member living in Gallup, New Mexico, thinks otherwise. According to Vincenti, earning a college education is the only way that her three children will be able to make a positive influence in the world―both on the reservation and off it.
“Although we have our tradition, our religion, and our culture, we still have to enhance ourselves in order to compete against the rest of the world,” and she says American Indian students can best do that by going to college.
“As a school board member, my ideal makeup of a student would be one who is strong in their language and culture but can still be [educated and successful] in the dominant anglo society,” she says. “Their culture, their language, and their heritage only make [these students] stronger and wiser in order to compete in the English society.”
Vincenti’s mother was only a teenager when she found out that she was pregnant. However, despite a sooner-than-anticipated pregnancy, she and her boyfriend defied all odds by graduating high school and then going on to complete their college educations. They knew that doing so was the only way they could truly give back to their community.
Life wasn’t easy for the family. “Both [of my parents] attended Fort Lewis College and I too struggled with them as they were in college. You know, they’re trying to make ends meet while having to raise a child,” says Vincenti. “My parents were determined, and [not going to college] wasn’t an option for me.”
And she did go to college. Three different times, actually. Vincenti first earned a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education before returning to school to earn a Master’s in elementary education with a bilingual emphasis so she could better teach native students living in her area. She returned to school a few years later to earn another Master’s degree, this time in occupational leadership.
Why three degrees? I wondered. Did she just have a thirst for knowledge? Or was it something more? “It seemed like being a teacher would never be enough to support three kids,” Vincenti spills. “So with each kid, I ended up getting a degree every time.”
To help Vincenti finish high school and prepare for college and beyond, her parents enrolled her in science, mathematics, and art programs for low-income students like herself. After she grew up and had children of her own, it was important that her children have access to these same kinds of educational opportunities.
However, it was incredibly hard for Vincenti to find a similar program for her children in the rural town of Gallup. So when Sylvia McMillan, program director at American Indian Services, approached Vincenti at a school board meeting about bringing her daughter, Kaleia, four hours away, to Blanding, Utah, for a similar educational program, AIS PREP, she knew this could be just the thing. “I was excited about [the AIS PREP program] because we don’t have any type of program like that in [Gallup]” she says. “We don’t have much in our area.”
She isn’t wrong. Because they live in such rural communities, many American Indian students struggle to find educational programs in their areas. In fact, simply getting to school every day can be a challenge for some students. Some travel as much as 75 miles, over dirt roads, just to get to their desks every day. That’s not exactly a great commute.
How community programs are making a huge difference
The AIS PREP program is a six-week STEM education summer program for young American Indian students, with six different locations throughout the west―and they have plans to expand to another two locations by 2020. The program spans the course of three semesters, with most of the students entering the program before starting seventh grade and graduating prior to starting high school.
During the six weeks of the program, students spend school nights in dorms on campus so they get a glimpse of the true college experience before heading home on the weekends. Throughout the week, students attend classes focused on simple machines, thermal science, electrical engineering, and mechanics. There are even weekly field trips to college campuses and other professional corporations so that students can better envision a future for themselves in STEM.
And the program is 100 percent free for qualifying students. Everything, from the sheets on the bed to the toothbrushes in the bathrooms are paid for by American Indian Services from program donations, giving the students who live in these poverty-stricken areas everything they need for a truly unique educational experience.
“The students we work with don’t have these kinds of opportunities,” says McMillan. “They live in remote places and come from some of the poorest, rural communities. So they just recognize the importance [of programs like this] and they are thrilled to have the opportunity to do something.
Quoting Plutarch, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled,” says McMillan. “And that’s what we’re trying to do with the students. We honor them for who they are, and we want them to become self-actualized, to discover their own passions. This is a STEM-focused program, but we are happy with whatever [career] students decide on.”
With the help of the AIS PREP program, students are coming equipped with the basic knowledge needed to thrive in their high school classes, and one day, the workforce. Regardless of what kind of career these kids leave college to pursue, the program is an integral part of helping make sure that these kids have the kind of education needed to become a productive member of the workforce.
Even better, the program is helping to meet a nationwide need for STEM workers. According to an Emerson survey, the United States has to fill an estimated 3.5 million jobs in STEM by 2025 to keep up with innovations in the field. And programs like AIS PREP are helping to solve the problem by showing these students what a career in STEM looks like.
“Repeated studies continue to show that helping children [learn and experience] STEM concepts early in their education greatly impacts the likelihood of them pursuing these fields,” says Sara Jones, COO of the Women Tech Council. Like AIS PREP, the Women Tech Council also has programs, like SheTech, for young students. “Engaging these students early with STEM concepts and mentor interaction lays the foundation for continuing education in STEM fields, and ultimately, career conversations.”
Widening the scope of opportunities available to American Indians
As I walk around, introducing myself to the students at this year’s graduation ceremonies, I learn that they not only have an incredible passion for STEM but also, an incredible passion to give back to their communities. I talk to students who dream of being engineers to help solve local energy problems, one who dreams of becoming a brain surgeon, and even one who wants to be a therapist to better help children living in broken or unstable homes.
A large majority of the people living in these rural areas work in welding, construction, nursing, or for the federal government. And until the AIS PREP program began, a large majority of students dreamt of a career in one of those four industries. The program has dramatically widened the scope of what’s possible for these kids.
“Not a lot of people have the opportunity to even just leave a reservation,” says Michael Vasquez, a Pechanga tribe member. “Once they’re exposed to something and find out that they can do it, it becomes easy, and they realize that there’s nothing that they can’t do.”
There’s just one problem though, none of these rural areas have the private economies needed to support these kinds of jobs. Instead of going to college and coming back to better their communities with their new skill set, most students end up taking jobs outside of these rural areas… where they actually exist.
“[One of the challenges] for my community is that many of our students come back with a degree, but we don’t have jobs for them,” says Vincenti. “We need to change that mindset. We need to prepare our communities to live in the 21st century.”
Programs like AIS PREP are the key to making that happen. “These programs are needed. They are helping to support families who aren’t sure of which direction to go when it comes to higher education,” Vincenti says, and she knows that programs like these are the key to success for many of these American Indian kids because she has seen it in herself. And her own daughter.
Kaleia is now a junior at her local high school, she plans to graduate next year, with her associate’s degree, and go on to pursue her Bachelor’s in physical therapy. Vincenti was so impressed with the AIS PREP program in Blanding that she made it her mission to bring the program to the school she worked for in Gallup.
“The program has been in existence in Gallup for two years now,” says Vincenti, “I saw the success of the program with my daughter and I wanted other Native American students to have the same opportunity.”
Now, Vincenti just wants other American Indian students to realize how important college is, for the student, their rural community, and their heritage. “I think I’m living proof of that,” she says.
Photography by Ori Media.