Challenges abound for Native students pursuing higher education — and finding ways to make it affordable |

Challenges abound for Native students pursuing higher education — and finding ways to make it affordable

By Cassandra Walker

First Nation's Focus

Western Nevada College student Shannon Hooper, of the Shoshone and Paiute tribe, was crowned Miss Indian Nations during the United Tribes International Powwow in Bismarck, N.D., in 2012.
Courtesy photo
Where to find scholarships To begin your research on available resources, here are two quick-hit lists for Indian American-specific funding as well as non-Native American-specific funding. American Indian Scholarships:
  • American Indian College Fund
  • Undergraduate Tribal University Scholarship
  • Undergraduate Non-Tribal University Scholarship
  • AICF Full Circle Scholarship
  • Intertribal grants offered by your own tribe, contact tribal elders to learn of any available scholarship dollars
Non-Native Scholarships:
  • Federal Student Aid through US Department of Education
  • Federal Pell Grant
  • Silver State Opportunity Grant (for Nevada students)
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
  • Academic Competitiveness and National SMART Grants

RENO, Nev. — In some households, children are taught that after high school you go to college, it’s just what you do.

But for a lot of families — including many in Native communities — it isn’t that easy to simply “go to college.”

Who pays for the bus fare or plane ticket to visit the school?

How could anyone possibly afford to live on campus?

The price of just one of my textbooks is $200? And I need five?

The examples are endless. Higher education is expensive, applying can be confusing, and much of the time students, don’t know the extent of resources available to help them succeed.

Funding challenges

One of the key factors in low college or university attendance among American Indian students is cost.

“There are tons of national, regional and local scholarships, and any kind is beneficial,” said Patrick Naranjo, resource coordinator at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Multicultural Center.

Naranjo said UNLV offers special programming to help American Indian students succeed, including helping place them in appropriate scholarships, such as the American Indian Alliance Scholarship set up for students at UNLV, which Naranjo says is a campus dedicated to offering support for its diverse students, particularly of American Indian background.

At Western Nevada College in Carson City, financial aid staff, academic advisers and counselors are available to students for help funding their education and using resources that make college possible.

“We find that many students are not aware of all of the resources available to them, whether that be financial assistance, academic advisement or other support systems,” said Lorraine Plympton, who works in Admissions and Records for Western Nevada College.

Financial scholarships abound for American Indian students, but Saundra Mitrovich, outreach and retention coordinator of Indigenous Student Services at the University of Nevada, Reno, says it’s up to students to adhere to submission deadlines and be sure they set themselves up for success.

“It is important that students do not forget their own tribal scholarship deadlines with their respective tribal education programs,” she said. “Not all tribes have funds to provide students, but they may provide other forms of assistance such as supplies, help with fees, etc.

“Also, I encourage students to always apply by the priority scholarship deadline for their intended school. This provides the opportunity for students to be selected for internal on-campus scholarships that may be related to specific majors and academic standing (GPA). Often times there are private donor scholarships set-up to support American Indian/Alaska Native students.”

Access to Information

The second most commonly discussed challenge for Native American students succeeding in higher education is outreach to tribal communities.

“In terms of where the tribes are located, talking about opportunities and resources for scholarships, financial aid and information is a challenge,” Mitrovich said.

It’s important that students reach out to teachers or adults in their community for support with their dreams for higher education, and equally important for the family to recognize and support their children in achieving academic goals.

Due to location logistics, some students may opt for online classes to earn credits toward their college degree without having to be present in the classroom considering how vast and rural the state of Nevada is — as well as other Western states — and how oftentimes, tribal communities are located quite far from college campuses.

Mitrovich suggests that families also help prepare children for mainstream college by helping them cope with cultural differences that many face after leaving the reservation.

“It is important that students find some grounding with their families in how they will prepare themselves culturally to be away from their homelands,” she said.

Throughout childhood and early adolescence, students should be prepared by faculty and family members with a plan of study to help them excel in areas they are naturally drawn to — in addition to reaching out for support or additional tutoring in areas that are more challenging — rather than waiting until the final years of high school to start paying attention to their cumulative GPA.

Visiting campus communities is a great way to immerse in the student lifestyle and get a sense of American Indian students, classes, faculty and resources that each institution has in place.

Before applying to college, it is recommended that students visit several campuses. Once there, locate student and diversity centers — as well as the departments for the field of study they might be interested in pursuing — to see what kind of support is available and where they feel most at home.

Education as seen through history

Mitrovich pointed out that the historically strained relationship between Native communities and the United States government has had a profound impact on today’s education numbers and the overall reaction to mainstream higher education as presented by the federal government.

“Another challenge that shouldn’t be discounted is the lack of understanding that you’re dealing with an education system that was created in many ways historically to rid Native people of their culture,” she said. “So looking at education first introduced to, or partnered with the Native people, it was not a symbiotic relationship. It was taking something away from them and replacing it with their version of education.”

She explained that in the past, boarding schools positioned themselves to know more than American Indian families and cultural teachings, telling parents that they were removing children from the household to teach them the way that they believed Native children should be taught — without regard for tradition, and keeping them from being indoctrinated in their own culture.

“They said ‘we know better than the family, the culture, the tribe — so now you have nothing to do with your kid’s education,’” Mitrovich said. “The lack of engagement and trust from the trauma of boarding schools and what educational institutions have historically done has had an effect.

Parental engagement reflects that there was a dismissal of family engagement; so now saying that you have to be involved in your child’s education after decades where they said to stay away … there are so many factors at play.”

Bridging the gap between opposing and embracing mainstream education is a challenge that many face, but one that Naranjo says students can overcome with the support of their families and communities.

He urges students to follow the academic areas they are most interested in without being afraid of seeming uncool.

“Anything is possible and I think more young Native students need to feel confident that there are role models and other people who had to make a step in doing something different,” he said. “They are not alone, and it’s OK to be smart, to want to do something different; to want to apply yourself more with school and less with social activities that a lot of our communities point to.”

Cassandra Walker is a special assignments reporter for Sierra Nevada Media Group. She can be reached at