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How Native Students Can Succeed In College: 'Be As Tough As The Land That Made You'

Native American teenagers participate in a drum circle dance during the College Horizons summer retreat for prospective students at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wi.
Jane Inman
Courtesy of College Horizons
Native American teenagers participate in a drum circle dance during the College Horizons summer retreat for prospective students at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wi.

The hurdles Native American teenagers face in and out of school are daunting. College Horizons, a small organization based in New Mexico, has proven they're not insurmountable.

Every year, the group sponsors week-long retreats on college campuses for teenagers from some of the more than 500 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S.

One of those retreats was at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., where 85 students gathered along with dozens of admissions officers from some of the nation's most selective universities.

The week kicked off with a boisterous rendition of the College Horizons motto: "College pride, Native pride!" Then, one by one, students stood to say who they are and where they're from:

"I'm part of the Eagle and Fox clan ... "

"I'm from the Cheyenne River in South Dakota ... I am a descendant of Lakota Chief Red Horse ... "

"I'm a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma."

Beyond that shared heritage, another thing they all had in common? They're outstanding students.

Many are athletes, artists and musicians. Precisely the kind of students that top-tier colleges should be lining up to recruit. And yet, most of them are not on anybody's radar.

"We're talking about a population that is so under-represented and under-served," says Carmen Lopez, the head of College Horizons.

Lopez is Navajo and a graduate of Harvard University and Dartmouth College. She says native students are often overlooked because they're isolated. It's likely that no one in their families has gone to college. Sometimes, the schools in their communities are too poor, too under-staffed to offer meaningful advice or counseling about college. Many of these students said they had little or no access to college prep or Advanced Placement courses in high school.

This puts Native students at a huge disadvantage, says Lopez. Which is why she invites admissions officers to these retreats: "I want colleges to recognize that."

She says something happens when you sit face-to-face with these kids and listen: You hear powerful and painful — yet uplifting — stories. Like the one a tall slender Navajo girl named Martinique shared during a group discussion here:

"When I was born, my mom couldn't take care of me at all, so she just put me up for adoption. I guess I was unwanted," says Martinique, holding back tears.

The only people who wanted her, she adds, were her grandparents: "My grandma and grandpa always told me that even if you had a bad past you can make it better. So having this past made me stronger."

For a young man named Theo, 17, it's the way Native Americans are perceived that hurts. He lives in Los Angeles, but says his roots are in Alaska.

"In Alaska and Rampart, my tribe, there is a lot of trauma, cycles of alcoholism and abuse and suicide." This is the stereotype people think of when they think of Alaska natives, says Theo. "Sadly some of it is true."

But Theo is at this retreat to help change that perception. Jordan, a Pueblo Indian from New Mexico, says his parents wanted the best education for him. So they sent him to a private school in Albuquerque. He says it's like living in two worlds.

"I kind of grew up in a cultural dilemma. Living in the city I guess I was like Indian on the weekends, city kid on weekdays.

"I'm only 6.25 percent native Hawaiian," explains Malie, 17. "A lot of people have called me an impostor: a person pretending to be Hawaiian. [To them] I am barely anything."

Many Native students say their identity can be a blessing, and a burden. That's why these retreats are important, says College Horizons' Carmen Lopez.

"I'm prepping them for the blows they're going to take when they arrive on their college campuses," she explains. "So that when those 'cowboy and Indian' parties at sororities and fraternities happen; when professors call out students to speak on behalf of all Native nations; I hope it's more of a sting rather than a punch in the gut."

Over the four days of workshops, lectures and long meetings, students have a chance to meet with college reps from schools like Stanford, Yale, Brown, Cal Tech, MIT and Duke.

They're given advice on applications, and help with things like scholarships and financial aid.

And, though they've been told they shouldn't stress out about their SAT or ACT scores, these kids know that everything does boil down to GPA, class rank and test scores.

The facts are helpful — but for many of these young people, this retreat has been a re-affirmation of identity and purpose. They look and sound confident. On the very last day, one group of students puts up a poster in bold letters — Be as tough as the land that made you.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.