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For prospective Native American college students, connecting with tribal culture on campus can make all the difference

Eleventh grade NACA students practice sutures during a field trip to the University of New Mexico with FACES for the Future Coalition, an organization that helps youth pursue education. (Photo: Courtesy Erin Apodaca via CNN Newsource)

By Kaitlyn Schwanemann, CNN

(CNN) — When Isabella Marquez, a high school senior from the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, was applying to colleges, two criteria were important to her: cost and culture. Marquez said wanted to attend a university that she could afford, but also where she could learn her tribe’s language, Keresan, dance, and still participate in traditional ceremonies.

Marquez, who plans to study nursing, said she applied to a handful of colleges both in- and out-of-state before deciding to attend the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The university was built on the traditional homelands of the Pueblo of Sandia, according to its website, and Marquez said she’s looking forward to attending in the fall because it is both relatively affordable, has programs tailored to Native students and is close to her home.

“I knew when I wanted to go to college that I wanted to be somewhere that had resources for Native students,” she said. “I will be in Albuquerque, so I can still be able to go out to places like Laguna.”

For many prospective Native American college students, the decision to attend college often means stepping outside of tight-knit tribal communities into a university culture that may not understand or recognize their customs and traditions. Students and alumni told CNN that aside from cost, finding a university that gave them the opportunity to celebrate their culture is often a top priority.

But that desire has been complicated by the recent surge in attacks on funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs that provide resources for underserved students.

James Montoya is the director of college engagement and career development at Native American Community Academy, a K-12 public charter school in Albuquerque that focuses on college preparation for Native American students.  He told CNN Native American students have been underrepresented in higher education for decades and that having resources that help them to develop a sense of community is often key to their success.

According to the 2022 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census bureau, only 16.8% of American Indians or Alaska Natives age 25 and older held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the national average of 35.7%.

What’s more, the number of Native American students attending college has decreased in recent years, according to a report from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, which found that Native American undergraduate enrollment decreased by 38% from 2010 to 2021.

Montoya said many of the students he works with are first generation college students, who often prefer to attend a school that allows them to maintain a connection with their tribe and culture. And although universities – like the rest of the country’s institutions – are built on Native land, Montoya said they often neglect to invest in Native culture and education, like teaching Native languages.

“If they’re on Native land, they should be supporting and teaching Native studies or the Native languages; they should be trying to help those type of things flourish,” he said.

Erin Apodaca, a teacher at NACA told CNN another barrier for her students can be the distance and “disconnect” they feel living so far from home.

“A lot of … students they come from reservations, pueblos, different communities where it’s, you know, it’s strictly just Native Americans or minorities,” she said.  “That’s one of our biggest values as being a Native American, is that … a lot of our support comes from our family.”

Colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to combat this drop-off through cultural immersion programs that can help Native American students develop community while at school. Apodaca said she met her fellow Native American students at New Mexico State University through similar programs, and they would participate in activities like pageants and movie nights.

“It was really fun. That was one thing that I remember that …  kept me grounded,” she said.

Holly Patterson, a 2019 graduate of Dartmouth College, said she decided to attend after participating in the college’s Indigenous Fly-in Program, which allows prospective Native American students to visit the school during Indigenous Peoples’ Day and learn about the school and engage in cultural activities.

Dartmouth was founded in 1769 to educate “youth of the Indian tribes in this land,” according to the university’s website.

“When I was there, as a prospective student, I really loved the fact that we had the community come together. There was a drum circle, like there’s attention to traditional foods from people’s different tribes and cultures,” Patterson said.

During the program, she was able to meet other Native American students, which would later come in handy as a student, when family members would send care packages of traditional foods.

“There was a large community of Navajo students … someone was shipped salsa and green chili, and other people got pinto beans, and I was like, ‘I haven’t seen this in months. Can I please have some?’” she recalled. “It felt like liquid gold. And so it was a great thing to experience and that kind of, it did make me feel at home.”

Having a strong sense of community made the transition to college easier, but Patterson said going from weekends in hogans, traditional Navajo dwellings made of wooden poles and clay, to spending four years in a small town on the east coast was still abrupt.

Patterson said she was only able to fly home to New Mexico once during her time at Dartmouth because she couldn’t afford plane tickets.

“I’m used to going to flea markets on the weekend and seeing my people sell their jewelry,” she said. “Sometimes it can feel very much like you’re alone and you just want to go home and be with family and have that connection again.”

Jacob Moore, vice president and special adviser to the president for American Indian Affairs at Arizona State University, explained that culture shock is common for Native American students.

“I think that culture shock, part of it, is perhaps different perspectives or, I guess what we would call called cultural incongruity. … I’m sure anybody that even travels internationally, can go through that type of cultural shock when people have different practices, different foods, different lifestyles, different languages and making that adjustment,” Moore told CNN.

ASU offers robust cultural immersion programs to help Native American students feel more comfortable and supported on campus, as well as a recruiting effort.

According to a 2020 article from ASU News, there were about 3,500 students enrolled who identified as Native American – the largest of any college or university across the country.

But it’s not just the culture shock of attending college, Patterson said she also struggled to navigate her fellow classmates’ ignorance about her culture at Dartmouth. Even after graduating, Patterson said she still remembers an exchange with a student in her freshman writing class that caused her to look inward and think about her identity.

During the class, Patterson said she and several other students introduced themselves as being of Native American descent.

“The takeaway was, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Native people still existed. I thought they only existed in textbooks,’” Patterson recalled. “It just kind of gave me perspective of being like, ‘No, I deserve to be here.’ … And in that moment too something struck within me of being like, I need to make a stand that we exist, and that me existing is a really good thing and I should be very proud of that.”

The experience ultimately helped her to grow, she said, but it was also a “painful growth, uncomfortable kind of growth.”

Although her years at Dartmouth were at times difficult, Patterson said she refused to quit.

“I had a chip on my shoulder that I was not going to come home until I had the Ivy League degree in hand, because I wanted to prove to people from my community that I could do this,” she said.

Patterson said she ultimately graduated with a degree, debt-free, and a strong community of Native American alumni. She now works as a business coach for Change Labs, a nonprofit that supports Native entrepreneurship on tribal lands.

“We ended up really understanding how to listen to each other and be that place of comfort,” Patterson said of her fellow Native students. “And that’s what makes the community so much stronger.”

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