have the lowest college graduation rates in the nation, but American
Indian and Alaska Native students at the University of Minnesota-Twin
Cities have made impressive gains
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Golding, of Yuma, Arizona, is on pace to graduate from the
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in four years. Nationally,
college enrollment rates for American Indian students are
dropping, but the state flagship school has seen success in
graduating greater shares of indigenous students. Photo: Caroline
Preston/The Hechinger Report
MINNEAPOLIS Charles Golding looked for two things when he
was researching colleges: a top economics program and a connection
to his native culture. A Google search led him to the University
of Minnesota-Twin Cities, a state flagship school with prize-winning
economists and a history of indigenous activism.
The university's Department of American Indian Studies, founded
in 1969, is the oldest such program in the country, and it's located
in the city where the American Indian Movement began in the late
But Golding's arrival on campus was discouraging. His father is
a member of Arizona's Quechan tribe and his mother is from Mexico.
He chose a particular dormitory floor because of its designation
as a "living learning community" for indigenous students. But he
said he was one of just two people who identified as American Indian.
Most of his hall mates were white.
At times, he felt pressed to speak for all indigenous people or
to answer insensitive questions from other students. He did well
academically, but still contemplated transferring to a state university
back in Arizona.
"It was a major culture shock," said Golding. "Every class, I'd
realize I am the only person of color in this classroom. It could
get really daunting."
He stuck it out, and in his second semester began to feel more
comfortable thanks in part to a campus center created explicitly
to serve native students, the Circle of Indigenous Nations.
"It was a major culture shock. Every class,
I'd realize I am the only person of color in this classroom.
It could get really daunting."
Charles Golding, a student at University of Minnesota-Twin
Cities whose father is a member of Arizona's Quechan tribe
Golding is one of a growing share of American Indian and Alaska
Native students who are making it through the Twin Cities university,
which has seen its six-year graduation rate for these students rise
from 27 percent in 2008 to 69 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, the number
of undergraduates who identify as native grew to 418 this fall compared
with 339 a decade earlier, the university said.
Students and faculty credit this progress in closing the gap for
native students to the variety of academic and social supports designed
to help them feel welcome on campus. Young people may also be arriving
at the university more academically prepared: Since 2005, Twin Cities'
admissions rate has dropped significantly. And these gains notwithstanding,
as Golding experienced, the campus has a long way to go.
view of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus from
the Circle of Indigenous Nations, an office that assists native
american students. Photo: Caroline Preston/The Hechinger Report
The improvement at the Minnesota flagship contrasts with a bleaker
national picture: Nationally, just 39
percent of native students graduate in six years. And in 2017,
a fifth of American Indian and Alaska Native adults ages 18
to 24 were enrolled in college, the
lowest of any subgroup.
The reasons native students lag behind in college completion are
many. They're more likely than white students to have graduated
from low-performing high schools. They have greater financial need.
They're often the first in their families to attend college. The
universities they enroll in were in many cases built on land stolen
from native people, to serve Western notions of education. And when
they arrive on campus today, these students often have to contend
with stereotyping and racism.
These challenges are the "ghosts of colonialism," said Carmen Lopez,
executive director of College Horizons, a nonprofit dedicated to
improving college success for Native American students. "Our institutions
need to be more conscious of this because they've been part of the
status quo, and they need to be woken up that they are not serving
their students the best way," she said.
Joan Gabel, the new president of the University of Minnesota system,
says that American Indians are regularly left out of conversations
on inclusion in higher education. That's in part a consequence of
their small numbers: American Indians and Alaska Natives make up
1 percent of college enrollment. At Minnesota-Twin Cities, students
who identified only as American Indian accounted for less than 1
percent of undergraduates, and those who identified as American
Indian or American Indian and another race, 1.3 percent.
The university and others like it have been trying to boost those
numbers amid a broader strategy to recruit more students of color
as the country's population diversifies. "If we had a more national
perspective on this, the way we do around other types of inclusion,
then we would all get better," said Gabel.
Richards graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
in 2018. Toward the end of her time in college, she found
a sense of belonging in the university's American Indian studies
department and with a student-run group of American Indians.
Photo: Caroline Preston/The Hechinger Report
Angela Richards recalls receiving little support from the counselor
at her small high school near South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation
where she grew up. Of the four native students in her graduating
class, she says she was the only one to go straight to college.
But even though her parents had pushed her in that direction
they used to tell her that there was nothing more powerful than
an educated native woman Richards felt consumed by guilt
about her decision to leave the reservation and her family.
In tears, she boarded a Greyhound bus in 2010 and rode it nearly
500 miles to begin her college career at Concordia University, in
"In my culture, you don't leave your family," said Richards, now
28. "You always stay somewhere close by."
Once she got to college, balancing her reservation and campus identities
proved difficult. "You've got your moccasin on, and you've got your
office footwear on," she said.
Richards struggled at times, transferring first to the University
of Minnesota-Morris and later to Minnesota-Twin Cities before dropping
out after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned
in 2017 and graduated the next year, having found a sense of community
within the American Indian Studies department and with clubs for
indigenous students. But still, she said, she missed countless ceremonies
and funerals back home. She only persisted thanks to multiple calls
to her mother a day.
"You've got your moccasin on, and you've got
your office footwear on."
Angela Richards, an alum of University of Minnesota-Twin
Cities who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation
University officials are often ignorant of the particular needs
and obligations of American Indian students, said Tadd Johnson,
who directs a master's program in tribal administration and governance
at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. These young people may have
spiritual and cultural commitments that regularly draw them away
from campus. And often, nonnative counselors and advisors are ill-equipped
to understand the concerns and multigenerational trauma that some
native young people experience, students and faculty said.
Funerals are one example: Death
rates are high on reservations and typically the whole community
attends. "People don't understand what funerals mean in the Indian
world and can't believe people are dying that much," said Johnson,
who noted that he sometimes helps native students communicate their
needs to nonnative professors. "A little more understanding always
Red Shirt-Shaw, a graduate student in education at the University
of Minneapolis-Twin Cities, stands outside the city's American
Indian Center, one of several sites in Minneapolis designed
to preserve indigenous traditions. Photo: Caroline Preston/The
Similarly, the financial aid process can expose tension between
native students and higher education. Asking native students to
enter into loan agreements with the federal government can be fraught
given the U.S. government's record of breaking its contracts with
American Indians, said Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, a graduate student
in education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Related: Universities try to catch up to their growing Latinx populations
Vanessa Goodthunder, who holds a bachelor's and a master's degree
from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, balanced the demands
of college and her connection to her community and culture by returning
often to the Lower Sioux Indian Community where she grew up. As
an undergraduate, she taught a Dakota language class several times
a month on the southwest Minnesota reservation. Like many native
students, her goal was always to return to help her community, and
after working for the governor's office, advising on diversity and
inclusion, she now runs federal Early Head Start and Head Start
programs for young children on the Lower Sioux reservation.
At University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, the
six-year graduation rate for American Indian and Alaska Native
students has risen from 27 percent in 2008 to 69 percent in
Maintaining the connection to her community, even though it took
time away from her studies, also helped her cope with an experience
that Lopez of College Horizons said is common for indigenous students:
feeling simultaneously invisible and hypervisible.
Professors often singled out Goodthunder to provide the native
person's perspective on a topic. "It was just exhausting," said
Goodthunder, now 25. "It's hard to discuss again and again, because
we always have to start back at precolonization and what historical
trauma is." Goodthunder recognized the value for other students
in hearing from her, but she said she simply couldn't always fill
from an "I am not a costume" campaign run by the American
Indian Student Cultural Center. Photo: Caroline Preston/The
That's why organizations and programs for native students are so
important, providing a place where these young people don't have
to explain themselves, students and university staff say.
Reducing that isolation also means bolstering the number of indigenous
students on campus. The Twin Cities university has been trying to
increase its outreach to tribal communities. It recently opened
institute for indigenous high school students. And one recent
Friday, hundreds of native high schoolers from the Twin Cities and
beyond gathered at a student center on the university's St. Paul
campus for a college fair designed explicitly for them.
On campus the same week, the American Indian Studies department
hosted a Mohawk artist from
Canada who screened several short films, including a sci-fi
retelling of an Iroquois creation story. The following day,
the American Indian Student Cultural Center, a brightly decorated
room in a gleaming building that is home to similar centers for
African American, Asian American and other student groups, held
its weekly Frybread Friday event.
In another campus hall, Jacob Bernier and Chrissy Pettit, two recent
graduates who now attend a master's program in heritage studies
and public history, were planning an exhibition on indigenous canoes
and environmental justice. A club they helped to start, Canoe Rising,
meets regularly on the Mississippi River for canoe excursions, paddle-making
workshops and lectures.
These activities for indigenous students notwithstanding, students
and staff said there is much more to be done. Hiring more indigenous
faculty and staff is one step. At the University of Minnesota-Twin
Cities and nationally, the share of faculty who identify as American
Indian or Alaska Native is less
than 1 percent. While it's a good thing that the university
has a center designed for indigenous students (an official with
the Twin Cities graduate school's diversity office has identified
just 141 in the U.S. and Canada that do), the Circle of Indigenous
Nations employs just one person.
"It's a very odd thing to be treated like
a foreigner in your own country."
Charles Golding, a student at University of Minnesota-Twin
Cities whose father is a member of Arizona's Quechan tribe
The University of Minnesota-Morris, for instance,
has gone further. It waives tuition for American Indian students
because of its history as a boarding school for Indian youth who
were taken from their families in the early 1900s in the name of
assimilation. (Its average six-year graduation rate for American
Indian and Alaska Native students between 2014 and 2017 was 45 percent,
above the national average.) Many people would like to see other
public universities in the state waive tuition. The University of
Minnesota-Twin Cities, for example, was built on Dakota land after
the Land-Grant College Act, or Morrill Act, of 1862 provided territory
to states to finance the creation of universities.
A few hours before the Frybread event, Golding, the University
of Minnesota junior, was typing on his laptop in the American Indian
Student Cultural Center.
Golding said he favored tuition waivers and more forthright conversations
about the university's past. "It's a very odd thing to be treated
like a foreigner in your own country," he said.
Now more than halfway through college, Golding said he's grown
a lot since freshman year. He spends more time at the student-run
cultural center for American Indians, and has learned a lot from
classes in the American Indian studies department, which has helped
lend historical context to some of his inklings about politics,
race and identity.
When he graduates, he's thinking of using his economic knowledge
to help tribes find alternative sources of income beyond tourism
and resource extraction. "It's important to me that I am not just
critical of the systems that are in place," Golding explained. He
wants to also have the ability to "theorize solutions."
This story about Native
American students was produced by The
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