Scottsdale Community College
American Indian students graduating from Scottsdale Community College this past May 2014.

4 More Challenges Facing Native Students Today

Tanya H. Lee

American Indian college students heading back to school this fall face tough challenges. Some are common to all college students and some are unique to Native students. Many American Indian students begin their post-secondary education at a tribal or a community college, so this discussion focuses primarily on those institutions.

RELATED: 4 Challenges Facing Native Students Today

Isolation and Lack of Role Models and Mentors

“For American Indian students, probably the biggest challenge when they are attending mainstream universities is finding people who are similar to them and understand what they’re going through,” says Sarah EchoHawk, Pawnee, CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

Most community college students, says Alberto Olivas, Mexica (Aztec)/Huichol, director of the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges, live within six miles of the school they attend. American Indian students are the exception. “Other students have families and support services that Native American kids do not have so far from home. They don’t know what resources are there, don’t know the community, don’t know where to look for quality housing,” Olivas says.

Some colleges have American Indian student centers, clubs and other formal institutions to help students, but others do not.

“One of the really great things about tribal colleges is wrap-around support,” says Carrie Billy, Navajo, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. “The college takes the place of a family in terms of supporting students through college, providing support like gas money, giving them a quiet place to study, teaching them study skills and providing day care for their kids. But probably the most important part is cultural and spiritual.”

EchoHawk says another part of feeling isolated is that American Indian students do not see faculty who are like them. An important service of AISES is providing advisors for STEM students, but often the advisors are not Native American. The organization has just received a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to increase the number of AISES members who complete their undergraduate and graduate degrees and go on to pursue faculty positions in STEM disciplines at United States colleges and universities.

RELATED: Native Academics Mentor Students Toward STEM Careers with $1.5M Grant

Desiree Flores, 18, earned her associate’s degree two weeks before receiving her high school diploma. On the left is Scottsdale Community College President Dr. Jan Gehler; on the right Ana Cuddington, director of Maricopa Community College’s American Indian Program and faculty overseer of the Hoop of Learning Program. (Scottsdale Community College)


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