Civil engineering sophomore LaPriel Tohtsonie grew up in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, the second largest Native American reservation in the U.S. — a place where the vision of higher education is often overlooked.
With high dropout rates and little motivation to go to college, students in Navajo Nation don’t consider the possibility of education beyond high school, she said.
“A lot of their parents and grandparents have never left the reservation or gone to college, so they don’t really see the vision to go to college and explore on their own,” Tohtsonie said.
About half of Navajo Nation residents older than 25 have high school diplomas. Only 8 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, even lower than the rate of degree-holding Native Americans in the country, which is 14 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Unlike most adults on the reservation, both of Tohtsonie’s parents have degrees from NAU and supported her decision to go to college.
Letting them down is what worries her the most, she said.
“Thinking in broader terms and thinking about the low percentage rate [of Native American college graduates] that is within my culture and my tribe, I feel a lot of pressure for myself to graduate from college,” she said. “I don’t want to fail.”
Demographics of a Nation
Navajo Nation has a population of more than 200,000 and extends nearly 27,000 square miles, according to the U.S. Census.
Many Nation residents live in rural-style homes and trailers that often don’t have running water or indoor plumbing, Tohtsonie said.
Most residents depend on propane or wood-burning stoves to cook and don’t have electricity and telephone lines in their homes, she said.
As a result, the poverty rate in Navajo Nation sits at 56 percent, the highest of any other ethnic group in the U.S., while unemployment is 44 percent, according to census data.
When some Native Americans leave the reservation to escape the high rate of poverty, they experience culture shock, Tohtsonie said.
“Once you’re outside of the reservation, things change,” she said. “It’s a different culture and society here [in Tempe] and Native Americans have a hard time adapting because they suddenly become a minority where you were once a majority.”
A history of mistrust
Looking at the low percentage of college graduates, Aaron Woods, the ASU Native American Achievement Program coordinator, said different factors include being first-generation college students, lacking financial support and coming from a reservation high school that doesn’t prepare students for college-level education.
Another important factor is the history of Native Americans in the U.S, he said.
“We as a Native people are overcoming a lot of history that quite frankly hasn’t been in our favor through the generations and decades,” Woods said.
As children, Woods’ parents were taken away to boarding schools to learn English. On Sundays they had to attend either a Catholic mass or Christian service, though they didn’t practice either religion. This was in an effort by the U.S. to assimilate Native Americans into the American culture during the 1800s and early 1900s.
Children were punished and hit with rulers when they spoke their native language, Wood said.
“When you come from a generation that came from that type of school background, a lot of times you’re not going to have the highest positive viewpoint on education,” he said. “Not only that, you may also not necessarily push a positive viewpoint of higher education on these children. That is probably something that is gripping a certain percentage at the reservation.”
Connecting a disconnect
The percentage of Native American students at ASU has almost doubled in the past 10 years, University officials said.
At the end of the 2009 spring semester, the estimated number of enrolled Native Americans was close to 1,400 — 2 percent of the student body, according to the ASU Institutional Analysis.
The Native American Achievement Program, which started in 1996, is one initiative that specializes in increasing the number of Native American students at ASU.
It works to retain and increase the graduation rate of Native American students from Navajo Nation, San Carlos Apache Tribe and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
The tribes are responsible for selecting 70 to 75 students a year to be accepted into the program. ASU then provides academic and personal support for their freshman and sophomore years.
The students selected are awarded a four-year scholarship and can carry it into graduate school.
Woods, who has been a coordinator for three years, said the program has proven it works.
“Our Native students that come through the program finish at a much higher level than those Native American students at ASU that do not,” Woods said. “When you give students a little more special attention … it makes a positive impact.”
Scholarship programs like the Barack Obama Scholars Program have also helped recruit more Native American students, he said.
This year, 66 of the 1,727 Obama Scholars are Native American, according to ASU Student Affairs.
ASU has reached out to the Navajo reservation by sending Admissions and Financial Aid Office staff members to visit, said Craig Fennell, executive director of Student Financial Assistance.
Demetria Morgan, the current Miss Indian ASU and a member of Native American Achievement Program, said she has been invited to speak on panels to encourage Native American high school students to attend ASU.
“I encourage them to see that statistics [of Native American college graduates] as an urge to show others that we as Native Americans are not going to be another statistic like we have been for the past couple hundred years,” the multilingual and multicultural elementary education junior said.
Bringing it home
In 2012, Tohtsonie plans to graduate and return to the reservation after working outside Arizona for a few years.
Tohtsonie said she hopes to change her major to geological sciences and use her degree to work in the rich petroleum industry on Navajo land.
“My degree will not only benefit me, it will also help benefit the reservation,” she said.
Morgan plans to be the first college graduate in her family in May 2011 and plans to go back to the reservation to use her degree.
“I feel like I’m in school for my people,” Morgan said. “I feel like I’m here for a reason and that is to become a teacher, a principal or a superintendent and open up my own school in the reservation to give something back to my community.”