There are scholarships available to Native students, but snaring one requires work and study. (Thinkstock)

Navigating Scholarship Maze Requires Persistence, Good Grades and Some Luck

SImon Moya-Smith
December 14, 2012

In September, Dean Chavers, the director of Catching the Dream—an organization that awards scholarships to Native American students—was hammered by readers for allegedly oversimplifying the often excruciating process of applying for Native American scholarships.

Chavers wrote in a story for Indian Country Today Media Network titled “Too Many Scholarships, Not Enough Native Students Applying” that in his 42 years of connecting students with scholarships he has never “had enough [Native American] applicants” and referred to the application process as “a little difficult.”

An angry torrent of comments by former, current and aspiring Native American college students, as well as parents of students flooded and its Facebook page. The bulk of the comments criticized Chavers’s approach and delivered a scathing critique of the detailed criteria required to receive a Native American scholarship: “I would love to have an opportunity for a scholarship as an adult Native American student,” commented Facebook user Lavonna Tiger. “But, unfortunately, there are income restrictions on many Native American scholarships. Just because we have enough to survive on doesn’t make it any easier to pay for college tuition and books.”

Another Facebook user, Gayle Toyebo Roulain, blistered Chavers’s article by saying it “just makes hard-studying Native students look bad.”

Soon after Chavers’s piece ran, Dwanna L. Robertson, of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, wrote a column titled “Shame the Scholarship System, Not Native Students” for ICTMN contesting Chavers’s assertion that Native American students are not diligently working to “win” scholarships. “There are so many barriers to college, and then even more to the scholarship process,” wrote Robertson. “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!”

Robertson, who is a public sociologist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, encouraged Chavers to acknowledge the resilience and ambition of Native American students rather than focusing on their standardized test scores. “[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,” Robertson wrote.

A week later, Chavers wrote a response to Robertson titled “Indian Students Respond to Scholarship System Stories in Unprecedented Numbers,” explaining that he “never said Native American students were lazy or disinterested. I don’t blame the students at all.” He called for further discussion on the topic of Native American scholarships and student ambition. “I love the fact that we have a dialogue going,” he wrote. “Most of the time, in the 26 years I have been running a scholarship program, I cannot get anyone to talk to me. Hello!”

As a follow-up to this important exchange between Chavers and Robertson, Indian Country Today Media Network asked a few financial aid professionals for their advice to Native students applying for scholarships.

Cheryl Kaas, coordinator of academic support services at the University of Colorado Denver, says patience is key for students looking for grants and scholarships. “I think the hardest thing is to find scholarships that you might be eligible for,” she says, adding that the scholarship application process, which often includes drafting an outstanding personal statement as well as collecting letters of recommendation, is getting more complex. She suggests trying for “five or 10 [scholarships]—as many as you could reasonably apply to,” but urges students to pay close attention to the requirements of the scholarship. “It’s getting harder and harder to finance your education,” she says. “You don’t have the time to apply to 100 scholarships. You’re not going to get all the scholarships you apply to. Read through the qualifications. If you don’t qualify for it, don’t apply to it.”

Kaas says the proliferation and accessibility of the Internet has significantly reduced the size of the haystack when searching for a scholarship. “The Internet has made it a much easier process,” she says. “That’s where I’d start.”

She adds that all students—whether applying for scholarships, grants and even loans—might have to fill out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA form, the U.S. government’s federal student aid document. The form is meant to determine how much—if anything—you or your parents will have to contribute to your education. “If you apply for a low-income scholarship you have to prove that you’re low income,” she says. “If you’re 18, that need is going to be based on your parents, but if you’re 24 or older, or married or have a child, or if you’re a member of the armed services, it’s based on your needs.”

If you’re employed, Kaas says you should check with your employer to see what money your company has available. Most universities have automatic admissions scholarships,” adds Kaas. “If you graduated in the top of your class, they’ll often just automatically give you a merit scholarship because you have a certain GPA.”

Tristin Moone, 20, an environmental engineering student at Columbia University who graduated from her high school in Farmington, New Mexico, with a 4.0 GPA, is just such a student. She graduated as salutatorian of her class and received the C.P. Davis grant, a merit-based endowment from Columbia.

While she was in high school, Moone, Navajo, says that although she utilized the guidance counselors as well as resources on the Internet, it was the College Horizons program that got her ready for school, and prepared her for those oft-convoluted scholarship applications process. She recalls that she had trouble with the writing portion of the scholarships, and benefitted from a little guidance there. “My writing skills are poor,” she explains. “I’m a math person.”

College Horizons is a nonprofit organization that provides Native students with college admissions workshops. “That’s the thing that, hands down, got me to where I am at today,” Moone says. “That’s where you learn all about the college process.”

She says the best advice she can give to fellow Native Americans who are considering college and are concerned about how to go about applying for scholarships is to simply ask questions. “If you don’t understand something tell somebody you don’t understand. Don’t suffer in silence.” She encourages Native students to exhaust all resources when searching for scholarships and grants. “You have to be a very ambitious person to think [you’re] a perfect candidate for [a] scholarship,” she says. “Your self-esteem has to be pretty damn high to say that ‘I deserve this scholarship.’ ”

Patrick McTee, director of scholarships with the American Indian College Fund urges students to visit the website of the school they hope to attend. He says students can find scholarships specific to both traditional universities and tribal colleges listed there. “Google things,” he says. “There are online scholarship searches.”

McTee urges all applicants to keep their spirits up. He says relentlessness will help. “If you apply for one scholarship and don’t get it, don’t give up. If [you] truly want to improve [your] life the persistence factor really works.”

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