Cultural connections at tribal colleges

By Matthew Dembicki

Native American students are more engaged at tribal colleges, says new study.

A focus on Native American culture, values and a sense of belonging at tribal colleges is a strong draw for many of their students, according to a new study. That’s important because such relationships cultivate engaged students, who are then more likely to stay in college.

The Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas has completed a study that explores student experiences at U.S. tribal colleges. Native American students who attend tribal colleges report having stronger connections with staff, instructors and other students than Native American students attending non-tribal colleges, according to surveys used for the study.

The surveys also showed that tribal college students are more likely to take advantage of tutoring services and skill labs than their non-tribal college peers. They are also more likely to participate in service-learning activities and to prepare several drafts of papers.

Students connections with tribal colleges start early and persists through their college experiences, the study said. For example, only 10 percent of surveyed tribal college students said they were fluent in a Native American language, but 45 percent said they intend to become fluent while in college. Nearly three out of four students entering tribal colleges report that the colleges’ focus on native language and culture improves their self-image and confidence.

“Tribal colleges are a group of colleges that we don’t often talk about,” said CCCSE Executive Director Evelyn Waiwaiole. “I think we can learn from them on how to help students become successful.”

Facing similar challenges

There are more than 30 tribal colleges and universities in the U.S. Many of their students face the same challenges that students at rural non-tribal colleges face. Some of the main barriers to staying in college are food insecurity, unreliable transportation and poor Internet connection.

Almost half of spring-term students reported that having limited access to a computer or electronics device at home or having limited access to the Internet at home could cause them to withdraw. Many tribal colleges realize this limitation and look for solutions. Some colleges, for example, leave their wi-fi on over the weekend so students and others in the community can park in the parking lot to access the Internet, Waiwaiole said.

Another example of tribal colleges making that extra effort to help their students is illustrated by Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Michigan. The college does not have a formal food service program or kitchen, but staff members prepare food for students using hot plates, crock-pots and electric fraying pans.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Matthew Dembicki

edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.