For Native American students, earning a college degree can be a lonely pursuit. Nationally, Native American students have the lowest total college enrollment rate of all ethnic groups in the United States, reaching only 16% in 2016. Of these 16%, only 14% ever actually attain a bachelor’s degree, and these numbers continue to fall.
According to a recent report by the American Indian College Fund, Native students continually feel invisible and alone in the maze that is higher education. With few role models, their isolation can prevent them from graduating or even enrolling.
Last year, Oregon State University took action to reverse that trend.
The Tribal Communities Initiative is a partnership between Oregon State Ecampus — the university’s top-ranked online degree program — and the Office of Institutional Diversity. It aims to help Native American students navigate the college experience and see them through to graduation.
“College can be really difficult to navigate if you don’t come from a privileged background,” says Marleigh Perez, director of student success for Ecampus. “So many of the students that come through our program are balancing multiple priorities. They are taking care of children or elders, maybe mid-career, and they need the flexibility of distance learning to make things work.”
From day one, the Ecampus team prioritized creating a personalized, culturally sensitive experience for place-bound Native students.
“Every Native student who enrolls in an online degree program is paired with a dedicated Ecampus success coach,” Perez says. “These coaches meet with our students on a regular basis to set goals, explore work-life balance and help them navigate hurdles that could otherwise send them off the rails. It’s like having a friend in your corner.”
Native students are also immediately connected with the university’s Native American Longhouse Eena Haws, through which they can build community with OSU’s worldwide network of classmates from similar indigenous backgrounds.
“The first week of classes, we would have introductions on message boards, and I would say I was Penobscot Indian, trying to reach out to other Native students,” says Orman Morton III, a Baltimore resident who earned his degree in environmental sciences through Ecampus. “It was amazing to have four, five, six people in every class say, ‘Yeah, I’m Native’ and make that connection.”
Allison Davis-White Eyes, director of community diversity relations in the Office of Institutional Diversity, who herself has indigenous roots, says building a foundation of trust with students and the tribal communities they come from has been vital to the success of the program.
“Those investments we’re making in personal, human relationships... they take time,” Davis-White Eyes says. “But I am confident we are building something that will last, well past our time here. There’s nothing more encouraging than hearing tribal leaders say, ‘We trust you to take care of our students.’”
Oregon State University is located within the traditional homelands of the Marys River or Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya. While we can never truly amend the injustices committed against indigenous people, we can make sure they have every opportunity to access education programs that will help improve their lives, protect their land and water rights, and preserve their cultural heritage.