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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Diné get taste of East Coast prep-school life
by Cindy Yurth - Navajo Times Tséyi' Bureau
credits: photo courtesy of Philips-Exeter Academy

CHINLE, Sept. 25, 2008 At first, it was like attending school on another planet.

This place had "literally hundreds of miles of green fields," wrote April-Sky Johnston, Diné from Santa Fe, NM, in an essay about the experience. "To find dirt anywhere was a challenging mission."

Then the Navajos realized they were the aliens.

"They (other students) asked us questions like, 'Do you still live in teepees?' 'Do you wear normal clothes?'" recalled Autumn Brown of Chinle.

And the ubiquitous, "Are you a real Native American?"

"They were so amazed they were in the presence of a Navajo," Brown wrote. "I was told I looked like Pocahontas."

And the classes ... they were the strangest of all.

"I encountered the 'Harkness' method of teaching," wrote Johnston. "Here there is a round table big enough to seat 13 people, which includes the teacher. Class sizes do not go over this amount."

In contrast to the lecture format the students were familiar with at their BIA and public schools back home, these classes were interactive - everyone shared equally on a topic.

But eventually, the students learned that kids are kids - even when they come from places like Ghana, Turkey and Memphis, Tenn. - and school is school.

"As the weeks went by, it got easier and more fun," wrote Claudelle Rae Jim of Chinle. "Then out of nowhere, week five is already here and it's time to pack up and go home."

For this was not another planet, even if it might as well have been. It was Phillips-Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH, one of the oldest and best college preparatory schools in the country.

Johnston, Jim and Brown were among 14 Native American students participating in the prestigious school's summer Native American Program, which has provided more than 250 Natives a glimpse of the preppie life since it was founded in 1985 by an Exeter alum living in Tucson.

While tuition, room and board at Exeter's summer program can run up to $6,000, the Navajo students don't pay a cent. The school covers 75 percent of their costs and the tribe picks up the rest.

They have to go through a selective admissions process, which includes a review of their grades, recommendation letters from faculty members at their junior high or high school, and an essay.

This past summer, the 13 Diné who attended the program had an added treat: one of their own on the faculty.

Mikaela Crank, 22, originally from Dennehotso, Ariz., was a teaching intern for the journalism class. She's an Exeter alum and the school's first Navajo intern.

"It was really good for me, because I've been wanting to become a teacher and get some experience," Crank said, "but I think it was also good for the kids that I was there."

For example, Crank was able to tell the other faculty why the Native kids were having trouble adapting to the interactive Harkness method.

"They would be like, 'Why are the Native kids so quiet?'" Crank recalled. "I told them that they're coming from a culture where being quiet is a sign of respect - you don't butt in and interrupt people, and you wait until you really know what you want to say before you say it.'"

Meanwhile, she worked the other side of the fence, coaching the kids when they met for Native American Club.

"I'd say, 'Look, you're not at Grandma's house. You don't have to be so quiet,'" she said.

As Native American Club advisor, Crank planned fun activities for the students, like attending a local powwow and cooking beef stew and fry bread for their classmates.

But as a former rez girl herself, she also knew it could be their only chance to be exposed to some Ivy League colleges.

"I called Yale, Dartmouth and Harvard," she said. "I got the Native recruiter from Harvard to come and talk to the kids. I just wanted to get them thinking, 'This is in reach; I can do this if I want to.'"

A high percentage of Exeter alumni do go on to attend an Ivy League college.

Crank, who has a bachelor's degree in communications and currently works with Mesa, Ariz., school district's Native American Program, said her ambitions rose along with the teens'.

"I'm definitely going to go on and get my master's now, maybe even my doctorate," she said. "I'd like to come back to the reservation and teach."

Exeter has already asked her to come back and work with the Native students next summer, and she has been asked to accompany an Exeter recruiter to reservations in Arizona next February.

"Right now, they're only recruiting in Chinle and Window Rock when they come to Navajo," Crank said. "I'm going to try to steer her to Kayenta and Shiprock, too, so more students know about this program and get excited about it."

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