Serving Native American Students

November was Native American Heritage Month, which celebrates the diverse cultures and traditions of American Indian and Alaskan Native peoples. But our attention to the educational needs of Native youth cannot and should not be confined to a solitary month. At ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning, which was launched in June 2016, we are working with partner organizations to close opportunity gaps and improve learning for students who now make up the majority of the U.S. public school population – students from families with lower incomes, working learners, English learners, students with accessibility needs, and students from underrepresented minority backgrounds, including American Indians and Alaska Natives. We are guided by the belief that all people have worth and dignity, and that talent and potential are widely distributed in our society, even if access to quality learning opportunities and social mobility are not yet as equitably available.

On November 30, the Center for Equity in Learning co-sponsored a #NativeEd Twitter chat with the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. A great deal of helpful information was shared and early indications are that #NativeEd was a “trending topic” on Twitter, which highlights, among other things, the role that social media can play in supporting collaboration and positive change within the network of individuals and organizations that are working to create a better future for Native youth. The dialogue was inspiring, and also reinforced that much important work remains to be done, as many of the challenges and barriers to higher education that I faced as a Native student are still among the challenges faced by Native students today.

In too many places, Native students are still an asterisk (*) in the data or an afterthought when schools and colleges think about populations and communities that need support. We need these educational institutions to recognize both the individual and cultural strengths that Native students possess, and the presence of needs that schools can help to address. Native youth live in all 50 states, in rural and reservation communities, as well as suburban and urban communities. Native youth attend tribal schools as well as public schools, and tribal colleges as well as the range of two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities. To borrow a phrase from recent Native activism, these students are as strong as the land that made them. But none of us has ever succeeded entirely on our own, so these students also need educators and mentors to reach out to engage them, to listen to them, and to help them develop and follow plans that will help them achieve success in school and the workplace.

However, we also need to be honest about the past and commit to a more inclusive and just future. Native students should not be expected to “check their culture at the door” in order to fit in and realize the benefits of education. Native education in the U.S. has had a long and ugly history of forced assmiliation, and many schools and campuses today still operate as if they were culturally neutral and benign environments. But many students do not experience our schools and colleges that way. As we prepare for the start of the New Year, we should resolve to do better, to educate in a more culturally informed and inclusive way, and to engage Native Youth and their families as partners in the process of reinventing the learning environment in ways that promote high standards and expectations in a more culturally informed and responsive way.

In this season of activism at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where Water Protectors have been supported by a remarkably diverse community in their efforts to protect sacred lands and access to clean water, we should remember the words of Sitting Bull, the Great Lakota leader who once said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” Creating a better future for Native youth will require educators to engage Native youth in the work of examining and removing barriers to success – in effect to make our schools more “student ready” while helping students to become more “college ready.” Improvement will require reciprocal engagement, open and honest dialogue, reconciliation, and a willingness to work in partnership to achieve new levels of success.

Along the way, we will need to help Native students explore the intersection between their interests, abilities, and values on the one hand, and the educational and career opportunities that they might consider on the other hand. Getting to that intersection will require a road map they can follow, with identified actions, resources and supports made visible to them. Too few people know that meeting the requirements for high school graduation are not the same as what you need to know to succeed as a first year college student. I know this information would have been very beneficial to me when I had to navigate the admission and financial aid process, and think about potential college majors. Resources like ACT Profile, a free, online, built-for-mobile-devices tool for college and career planning can provide valuable information, especially when combined with advice from a supportive advisor or mentor.

My time as a Native college student was exciting, but also isolating and lonely at the same time. Like many of my peers, I faced challenges and life changing events while simultaneously trying to find a group of friends (Native and non-Native) I could rely on for support. College certainly became easier once I got a handle on time management and study skills, which I had not developed as much as I should have in high school. The college experience was life changing once I figured out there was no shame in seeking advice or help, which did not come as second nature to me. It even surprised me there were people there to help students like me, so I would encourage Native students to be proactive in getting involved, building a support system on campus, recruiting allies to be a united voice to promote student success in college. By helping yourself, you will also be helping others, and by helping others, you will be helping yourself.

I spent a good portion of my career as the director for the American Indian Program at Stanford, and as the dean of students at several colleges and universities. There are still aspects of American higher education that baffle and frustrate me, but I know that progress is being made. That was evident in the wisdom and diversity of participants in the #NativeEd Twitter chat. We are gaining strength and building momentum. I believe that the purpose of education is to help Native students, indeed all students, to become the most formidable and complete human beings they can be. And the journey along that path will move us in the direction of becoming a more equitable, fair and just society.

Jim Larimore (Comanche) is the Chief Officer for the Center for Equity in Learning at ACT.