Tribal College Helps More Indigenous Students By Expanding Reach

During the pandemic, Tohono O’odham Community College, founded in 1998 to serve his tribe, moved all of their courses online and made them free to any Indigenous student.

Enrollment nearly doubled to over 900 students. Tohono O’odham has seen the biggest increase of any tribal college – 96% in 2020.

Why we wrote this

Can a tribal college support the culture of its own community while enrolling students from many other Native American groups? A school in Arizona has made a commitment to try.

There are now 55 tribal nations represented among the students, down from eight or nine, says college president Paul Robertson. The growing diversity has raised questions about the identity of the small college and how best it can contribute to Indigenous education.

College deans, faculty and staff have spoken in recent weeks to address what Dr Robertson initially called an “existential crisis” which begged the question, “What are we?” The school has since decided that it “can adapt to changes while retaining our identity,” notes the president.

Josie Pete of the Paiute Indian tribe of Utah founded the college a year ago. Online classes and free tuition allowed him to study from his home on the Utah reservation.

“It was something that was practical,” she says. “I didn’t really have to ask myself, ‘How am I going to pay for school? How am I going to pay for the books? “

TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION, Arizona.

Deep in the Sonoran Desert, near the Arizona-Mexico border, the picnic tables under the Ramadas at Tohono O’odham Community College are empty. A new amphitheater for songs, prayers and ceremonies is silent under a November sun.

But the college, located in the Tohono O’odham Nation, about an hour west of Tucson, has more students than ever before, but not on campus.

During the pandemic, the college, founded in 1998 to serve its tribe, moved all of its courses online and offered them free to any Indigenous student. Enrollment nearly doubled to over 900 students. Tohono O’odham has seen the biggest increase of any tribal college – 96% in 2020.

Why we wrote this

Can a tribal college support the culture of its own community while enrolling students from many other Native American groups? A school in Arizona has made a commitment to try.

The students loved the online classes and the free tuition so much that when the college reopened this fall, they didn’t return to campus. And the college has diversified. There are now 55 tribal nations represented among the students, down from eight or nine, says college president Paul Robertson. Growing diversity is changing the makeup of a campus rooted in service to the Tohono O’odham people, raising concerns about the identity of the small college and how it can best contribute to Indigenous education.

College deans, faculty and staff have come together in recent weeks to address what Dr Robertson initially called an “existential crisis” which begged the question, “What are we?” “

The question resonates across the country of India as tribal colleges and universities, heavily funded and federally founded to serve their specific communities, strive to meet a vast need for indigenous students in higher education. .

Colleges “against some really negative forces in our culture in terms of letting go of your background,” says Jon Reyhner, professor of education at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and co-author of American Indian Education: A History. “Knowing your history breeds resilience. “

College President Paul Robertson stands near the new amphitheater on the Tohono O’odham Community College campus. The immense need of all native students suggests that the college has a purpose beyond its tribe. “There are a lot of students there,” he says. “I think we’re starting to see it.”

The Tohono O’odham Nation founded its college, one of some 35 tribal colleges in the country, with the goal of preserving the culture and traditions of a people whose ties to the region go back thousands of years. But college president Dr. Robertson says the immense need of all Indigenous students suggests the college has a purpose beyond its tribe. “There are a lot of students there,” he says. “I think we’re starting to see it.”

Josie Pete from the Paiute Indian tribe of Utah said she likely could not have enrolled in Tohono O’odham Community College a year ago without the availability of online classes and free classes since she worked from her home on the Utah reservation.

“It was something that was practical,” she says. “I didn’t really have to ask myself, ‘How am I going to pay for school? How am I going to pay for the books? ”

Ms. Pete wanted to study art and the college sent her supplies including sketchbooks, pencils, paints and charcoal. “The school believed in me enough to send me the supplies,” she says. “It was really special.”

Despite being from a different tribe, Ms Pete says she enjoyed taking Tohono O’odham’s compulsory language and history classes. “I actually totally agree,” she says. “It’s unique to discover another culture that is similar to mine. “

When she’s finished in about a year, she plans to go to a four-year institution where she can also study online to earn a bachelor’s degree in art and eventually become an illustrator.

Josie Pete, a member of the Paiute Indian tribe of Utah, began attending Tohono O’odham Community College during the pandemic. She lives in Utah and was able to take all of her classes online.

Feed a thirst for education

Tohono O’odham Community College has been able to accommodate additional students, like Ms Pete, thanks to a combination of federal funds and support from the Tohono O’odham Nation, which provides about 42% of the college’s annual budget, according to Dr. Robertson. Federal funding for tribal colleges and universities is only given to Native American students, who make up 95% of Tohono O’odham’s students.

The school is a model for what other tribal colleges and universities can achieve by developing a strong online presence, said Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

“This is exactly how we want to serve aboriginal people wherever they are,” says Billy. “There is a thirst for culturally based education. “

Drawing native students from everywhere online can only enhance the academic success of American Indians, says Ofelia Zepeda, chair of the board of trustees of Tohono O’odham Community College and professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “It’s just great to see because it’s been so long in coming.”

American Indian graduation rates have long been difficult: 15% of American Indians and Alaska Natives aged 25 and over have a bachelor’s degree or above, compared to 32% of Americans in this group. age, according to census figures. In Arizona, home to one of the largest indigenous populations in the country, the numbers for both groups lag even further, with 11% of American Indians and Alaska Natives aged 25 and over titular. a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 29% of Arizonans this age. group.

Studies have shown that the culturally enriched experience in tribal colleges fuels student success. Lessons in indigenous language, culture and history about their tribes are key to the program. This is the purpose of a tribal college or university – to build and win back a community. Schools are evaluated based on their specific tribe relationships. The tribal college movement of the late 1960s and 1970s grew out of the oppression and frustration that many Native American children suffered after decades of forced assimilation into Western customs at residential schools. Most tribal college graduates stay or return to their reserve.

The Tohono O’odham Nation, one of the largest in the country at nearly 3 million acres, has approximately 34,000 registered members, including those who live in Mexico, said Bernard Siquieros, vice chairman of the board of administration of the college.

The tribe founded the college to “provide an opportunity for our young people to have a good starting point in their higher education journey,” Siquieros said. The teaching of the nation’s language, history and culture – known as Himdag – is a key element of the study program. But welcoming students from other tribes helps all native students and the college, he says.

Yet the college balances this with its original mandate. Some students from other tribes ask to take a class in their own tribal language, but that is not what Tohono O’odham Community College is, says Alberta Espinoza, a university counselor. Students understand, she says, when she tells them, “This is Tohono O’odham Community College,” and they don’t have to pay tuition as a native student, she says.

“The universal Indigenous worldview is like, ‘It’s a gift,’” says Ms. Espinoza. “You just don’t look like a gift horse in your mouth. And so, be respectful. You take what’s given to you and go from there.

“It was like a family”

Authorities want students to return to the physical campus, offering incentives such as free meals and gas vouchers. And there are plans for a completed wellness center and a four-year diploma in Tohono O’odham studies.

Caralina Antone, who is currently studying for her bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, credits the supportive atmosphere at the university for helping her return to college.

“They continued to encourage me,” she says. “It was like a family. … You’re not alone.”

Many indigenous people, like Ms. Antone, live in urban areas but wish to attend tribal colleges, which are often located in rural and remote areas. Mrs Antone, an orphan raised by her grandmother, wanted to attend Tohono O’odham middle school because it was her grandmother’s tribe. At first, she commuted nearly six hours a day from the Phoenix area to college and back. “I got up at 3 am to be out at 4:30 am,” she says. “I wanted to pay tribute to him and finish my studies.”

She missed having in-person classes after the pandemic started, but adapted to working online. She was college student of the year when she graduated in 2020. She hopes to become a social worker and help teens.

“You have to finish what you started,” she said. “I’m glad I got out of it.”

Tohono O’odham Community College officials gathered last week and are “united” in saying that the “mission of the college will remain the same” as the college faces a future rooted in serving the students of many others tribes, says Dr. Robertson in an email.

“Through much discussion, we came to a consensus that we can adapt to changes,” he notes, “while retaining our identity. “


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