Shame the Scholarship System, Not Native Students

Dwanna L. Robertson

Recently, Dr. Dean Chavers wrote an article about how Native students aren’t applying for scholarships. This touched a nerve for me and a lot of others on the ICTMN Facebook page.

With all due respect to Dr. Chavers, the scholarship process is more than "a little difficult." It's confusing and complex with very specific criteria requirements. For example, when I first started as an undergraduate at the age of 25, McNair scholarships were not available. Also, as a nontraditional student, I didn't qualify for most of the others--either my standardized test scores were too low, or I didn't do enough community service. Back then, they wouldn't take a letter from your tribe. When I came back to graduate school, I didn't qualify for the graduate McNair scholarship because I'd already taken a few graduate classes to get ahead at my job. So, I worked my way through two master’s degrees. Now, as a doctoral student, everyone thinks my tribe pays for everything! My wonderful Nation is not rich, and I've received no money from them.

One of the biggest issues for me has been time. I worked full-time while going to school and raising my daughter without the help of a partner. I couldn't devote enormous amounts of time to apply for individual scholarships. It's not like each place wants the same thing! Only in this past year was a clearing house created for students to upload application materials to apply for at a few sources at once. Otherwise, these take A lot of time and effort because of the individuality of each scholarship. It’s also disheartening to apply for scholarships and get turned down for being nontraditional. Most scholarships go to fresh-faced, young people without blemished records and with good standardized scores enrolling for a particular science field. Those students are few and far between, especially in Indian country.

That’s not to say we’re not as smart or capable. It’s that we’re negotiating life’s obstacles in a world of poverty and stigma. The daily stress of being a college student coupled with microaggressions (e.g., mascots, classmates’ and professors’ insensitive remarks, etc.) is tiring. I’m worn out from the enormous amount of emotional work I have to do just to get along. Plus, poor kids have to work to help their parents out financially, and may not even own a computer. They rarely enjoy one-on-one attention for college prep and scholarship applications.

There are so many barriers to college, and then even more to the scholarship process. I just don't think it's fair to portray Native students as not trying to "win" scholarships. Most of us already know that other people are going to be more qualified than us, if the award is scored in the traditional Euro-American way; e.g., standardized tests, extra-curricular activities, and GPAs. It took me until my 30s to get past the shame of my background as a teen-aged, single parent and my obvious substandard education from a rural town in Oklahoma. Now, I'm in a top-30 program, working with professors known globally as experts in their respective fields. The admissions committee in the Sociology Department looked beyond my GRE scores and saw my potential. I haven’t let them down. I have a 4.0 GPA at the University of Massachusetts. I write for Indian Country Today Media Network!

In closing, what I've tried to say is that Dr. Chavers’s article needs context. Native students aren't lazy or disinterested. Native students need guidance and support. So, stop blaming individual Native students for not knowing how to get money to pay for something that many never thought they'd be able to do in the first place--go to college!

Scholarship committees should put out the call earlier, encourage Native students to apply, and provide templates or other means for filling out the applications. Plus, don't make it sound so competitive! I don’t want to always try to outdo someone else. Muscogee people aren’t supposed to draw attention to ourselves individually in competition, but to our group or team. The individualism of universities and scholarships make it hard for us to uphold our traditions and our cultures. Also, if you're going to measure whether a student will succeed and bring honor to your fund, then look at how far they've come, not how well they did on a test. We're already tired of our accomplishments being viewed as not being enough.

Most of all, please know this. We're not white, which means we're not going to think, speak, act, or write like white folk. We will think, speak, act, and write with excellence, but it's up to the committee to recognize it. We will bring honor to the university and scholarship fund, alike, if given the chance.

Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a public sociologist.

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dwanna's picture
Thank you for your comment! It is exactly the tone that you describe that made me sit up and take notice--that paternalistic, individualistic, patriarchal tone. I'm so pleased that many people have engaged in this conversation on and off this page, the ICTMN Facebook page, and through dozens of emails I've received. I actually wrote this column right after I read Dr. Chavers' article, but the political conventions happened and it took awhile to get it posted. This is a VERY HOT topic among Native college students, who actually try to get these scholarships. They (and I) are upset. We're already disproportionately underrepresented as college students, college faculty, and college administrators. I agree with you that Dr. Chavers' article is both disturbing and detrimental to Native students, and that it discourages potential donors from giving to Indian scholarships. Do I think all things being equal any Native student could easily compete with any other student of any other race/ethnicity? Absolutely! But to position Native students as the problem without any context of the white privilege that is the very foundation of the United States and the university and scholarship systems is (almost) unforgivable! If he and others were to stop and think about where Indigenous people are in the sociohistorical scheme of things, they might understand that we're not slow or lazy--we're actually overachievers! The first tribal college was the Navajo (Dine) Community College in 1968. That means we're behind historically White Colleges by about 350 years. It also means that Indian Colleges are about 100 years behind Black colleges. Three historically Black universities were established before the Civil War - Cheyney University (1837), Lincoln University (1854), and Wilberforce University (1854). Yes, I am well aware that Dartmouth was established in 1789 to give "Christian" instruction to the young people in Indian tribes, but it quickly veered away from that mission. I would also argue that attending college to become missionaries is not the same as attaining a degree for teaching or to become a physician. With the reservation, removal, and relocation eras, colleges for Indians were quickly forgotten. Indeed, we first needed to 'civilized'! Yes, a few Native people here and there did go to college a long time ago, but there was no real effort in educating our people until the boarding schools. Boarding schools are a topic of their own, but suffice it to say, most of them were labor intensive (trade) schools that tracked Indian folk into manual labor or blue collar jobs. In the article, I put my own experience into this issue because I wanted to make it personal. I wanted people to see that I was terribly successful in the business world (even before I came back to college) and even someone like me finds it extremely difficult. I've received teaching and research fellowships from my department, of course. But the prestige of outside scholarships carries weight, and I'm really thin in that area. And to your point, I didn't have courses in trig in HS, but I did make an A- in calculus in graduate school. And I've made an A in every statistics class I took. In fact, much of my work is done with quantitative methods. A stupid standardized test cannot be the end-all, be-all of college admissions and scholarships. We already know that doesn't work! I agree with your assessment of Dr. Chavers' article. In closing, I'd like to use a metaphor. If I had a store that attracted only particular "types" of people to shop, I might wonder if my shop is unfriendly to other types of people. Is it easily accessible for those with disabilities? Do the people who work there make everyone feel welcome? Does everybody know where it's located? Or is it an invitation only environment--like the club scenes you see in the movies where only the "pretty people" get in?
bullbear's picture
Why are we spending so much time trying to bring to light the shortcomings of Native people competing for scholarships. Wouldn't it be better if we spent our time researching why there are hindrances and more importantly, how to develop and/or unlock the door leading to successful results? As an example, go to the current online issue of the Navajo Times and read about a student who was able to attend college through his amassed efforts of scholarship applications, reviewing other essays, creating templates and applying to even the smallest local community scholarships that led to an accumulation sufficient enough to more than pay for his dream of attending Harvard. And he is giving his time and knowledge, freely, to parents and students on how he did it, what it took, and perhaps dispel the notion that only high academic achievers need to apply. When I was in high school, the counselor did not have the time or desire to tell me about scholarships. I was a first generation in my family to attend college, which we still see plenty of today. I agree that we are a race of late-comers to higher education, but we are making our own path that no one else can do for us. Our culture, language and traditions are finding its way into curriculum in primary education in more and more Indian communities. In today's high tech society, we have little excuse to say that we are unable to help students seek and successfully win scholarships. In short, we make our own chances, it should not be given to us. One of my jobs was to assist vocational education students from various Indian communities. We put together funding plans which often meant going to their community and also speaking with their parents because they also had to continue providing support through encouraging regular attendance or helping with transportation. Many of these students commuted because they had a strong tie to their tribal traditions and ceremonies. The greatest personal reward was seeing some of these students 2 or 3 years later and hearing how they completed their program and had a job they enjoyed. Wouldn't it be wiser if we invested our time in seeking resources that will provide students and parents the knowledge to securing funding instead of delineating why we fail?
dwanna's picture
Bullbear, you're absolutely right that we should be developing ways that lead to successful results. That's why I wrote this column. Unless we add context to the situation, it comes off once again as Native students just aren't trying hard enough. Unless we understand the sociohistorical issues faced, we cannot bring about change. To use an example of a student who went to Harvard, no less, is exactly what I'm talking about. I'm not making excuses; I'm stating facts here. I put my own story in it to make it more personal. I have an MBA, an MS, and am now a PhD candidate. I've been terribly successful in two separate careers. So, if I find it daunting, then it is! So, like you say, I made my own chances and NOTHING was given to me. And even though I've been successful no matter where I go, it's been at an extreme cost. And for everyone to CONSTANTLY defend an unfair system is beyond me! God bless all the students who wrote their stories on the facebook page about Dr. Chavers' article. My heart goes out to them. They've worked so hard trying to secure funding, only to fail and have to take out student loans. They needed someone to speak up for them. Now I understand why so many stay silent.
gsevalikova's picture
With all due respect to white students and teachers, superior methods comr right from the Asian syle of teaching and study,except beatings that Asian teachers are famous for. America is near the bottom of developed nations in most categories, which should alarm us all in the US. It's rather scary to watch the dedication and competing,which is merciless. Please dump the Euro-style it's old and won't work in this century anymore. Asian kids overseas killed themselves if they failed their classes,and many hoped to be reborn as Americans. The entire system here needs revamping.
nettee's picture
I agree with your article, and I understand what you are saying, however I am having a very hard time with your last paragraph. I'm sorry but not all white people think alike, and I do not appreciate being piled in with people who do not see diverse ways of thinking, and I certainly did not grow up in some privileged environment. I work at a Native American School and I help teach children that are brown, black, and white. My husband has brown skin, blue eyes, and brown hair, my son has brown skin, brown eyes, and brown hair, my daughter has light skin, blue eyes, and blond hair, I have light skin, brown eyes, and brown hair. My point is, that if you're going to talk about a certain group of people, please be specific about who you're talking about. It breaks my heart that some young people will be reading those comments. And your right, those "microaggressions" are tiring.
lozana's picture
My daughters applied for the scholarships. They are enrolled in their tribe. The scholarship application for Catching the Dream states that a CDIB certificate with exact blood quantum must be sent from the tribe and mailed back with the application to them before the deadline. My daughters have tribal enrollment certificates with the Oglala nation. I don't know why a copy of that does not suffice from the student and why the tribe needs to further get involved and possibly delay the whole process. Also for State tribes they don't necessarily have a degree of Indian blood in many cases. It is by descendancy. They say on the application combined tribal affiliations are not accepted for the 1/4 BQ, but a CDIB does just that. Both my daughters live in the city, but did more than enough to prove their involvement in preservation of sacred sites, cultural education through Indian councils, etc. and sent great essays for other scholarships. They got nothing. I guess they feel that since we are getting enough financial aid because we are right above poverty level that additional help is not needed. I want to know why other groups of people don't have to go through this process.
gizmodo's picture
i'm interested in your last paragraph even though i agree with it to an extent. but you want to point out to scholarships committees that you don't 'write like white folk,' when those scholarships are going to be paying for you to go to an institution administered by 'white'/American systems, where classes will be taught and graded most likely according to 'white' standards, and where navigating the majority of other students will require some degree of understanding 'white' society? there's much to be said for respecting our uniquenesses and diversity, but stressing that you won't conform to the standard ruler of most colleges seems a bit like wanting to have it both ways. the same theme comes into play with your mention about the lack of a clearing house. yes there are challenges in applying for scholarships, but, uh, theyre not supposed to be easy, right? otherwise the money would just be given away. i know youre responding to chavers's point about not having enough applicants, but i dont see how relaxing the requirements to cater to the potential that an applicant's life is demanding is supposed to solve anything.
dwanna's picture
I'm not stressing that I and other Native students won't conform. That's your interpretation. I'm asking the people who CLAIM they want to increase diversity by providing scholarships to people of color, particularly Native students, to look beyond their white privilege and see that excellence comes in different shades and dialects. There are more than challenges to applying for scholarships. Just read Dr. Linda Neuerburg's comment above. The last paragraph is meant to make people like you aware that just because Native students are from "rez" schools like Dr. Chavers discusses doesn't mean they're not capable of excellence like white students. It just means it may not look the same. I'm not asking that requirements be relaxed. I'm saying that we should call it what it is - a scholarship system for middle to upper middle-class white students who have educated parents and/or mentors and who have attended above standard or private preparatory schools. In the meantime, don't give Native students or me a hard time about it.
duwaynesmith's picture
Thank you Dwanna for responding to Dr. Chavers' article. I was disturbed with his article. First of all, it sounded very paternalistic; it reminded me of some of the comments I used to hear when I was working for the BIA over 35 years ago, comments that echoed sentiments like, "why try to help them . . . they are not interested in helping themselves". I was especially concerned that potential donors to scholarships for Native students might be discouraged from donating money, believing that Native students don't really need scholarship help since they were already getting "federal financial assistance". Dr. Chavers states that he has been involved in promoting scholarship assistance to Indian students for 42 years, but he doesn't talk about any efforts of outreach to those students, making it easier in the scholarship application process. Certainly, after 42 years of experience, different strategies at outreach should have been developed and tried. Dr. Chavers laments that Indian schools do not have books on "winning scholarships". Well, I would challenge him to develop a project to assure that Indian school libraries (as many as possible) have these books. Also, I note that Dr. Chavers implies that scholarship applicants should be prepared by having completed trig and calculus in high school. There are many successful college graduates in our country who never completed courses in trig or calculus!! Does his article discourage potential scholarship applicants ? Dr. Chavers' article needs to be challenged since the content can be used to discourage both students and potential scholarship donors.
turtlewoman's picture
I also was perturbed by Dr. Cheaver's article. If he wants to engage more American Indian youth in applying for scholarships he should begin by looking at his (Catching the Dream) own application that is one of the most daunting applications out there. That application states right up front that incomplete applications will not be considered, yet it asks students to provide their high school transcript by a deadline that occurs months before they graduate. There are multiple other requirements in the Catching the Dream Scholarship application that any high school student would find difficult to complete. If Dr. Cheavers and others are serious about having scholarship dollars that are not awarded, perhaps they should review their application process and figure out what is keeping our American Indian students from applying. It's certainly not because they don't need the funding! Dr. Linda Neuerburg, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth