When Kimberly Kee was applying for colleges in the southwestern U.S., the University of Arizona stood out to her because of the level and type of support it offered American Indian students.
So committing to the UA came easy.
"I've always cheered for the UA and wanted to come here," said Kee (Navajo), who first learned about the UA through the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program, a UA outreach program that works to to improve college-going opportunities for ethnic minority, low income and first generation college-bound students.
Now a UA senior pursuing a degree in family studies and human development, Kee is among about 1,200 American Indian students attending the UA. The University has gained statewide and national attention for its recruitment, support and graduation of American Indian students.
Since 2003, the UA has increased the enrollment of American Indian students from 714 to 1,139. That represents a nearly 60 percent change. Students representing the Navajo, Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui, Hopi, Cherokee and other tribal nations.
The UA also is known for expanding opportunities for American Indian graduate students. The National Science Foundation has reported that the UA is among the top producers of American Indian and Alaska Native doctoral degree recipients.
Such figures are representative of international efforts at the UA, involving on- and off-campus partnerships, collaborations and research initiatives.
"The UA has many wonderful program offerings that appeal to tribal nations," said Karen Francis-Begay (Navajo), the UA's assistant vice president for tribal relations.
Francis-Begay, who has investigated and published on the experiences of American Indian students in higher education, said she and others at the University are working both on and off campus to ensure that such students are recognized and respected.
"Much of our work is guided and directed by policy," she said. "You can't develop good policy without the inclusion of all those who will be impacted."
Expanding Cultural Knowledge, Improving Access
UA faculty and staff have garnered national and international attention for research in a range of important areas, including the revitalization of indigenous languages, indigenous governance and leadership, and indigenous law and policy.
The UA's American Indian Studies Program offers several graduate degrees, training students toward careers in education, law, literature, cultural studies and the management of natural resources. In fact, the UA was the first in the nation to offer an American Indian studies degree at the doctoral level.
In the area of funding, groups like the American Indian Alumni Club support undergraduate and graduate students. The club, which is part of the UA Alumni Association and raises funds for scholarships, provides about $75,000 to nearly 40 students each year, pairs students with mentors and involves them in monthly academic and professional workshops.
Native American Student Affairs (NASA) serves as an important centralized hub of academic and social support for students, complementing other UA efforts to improve recruitment, retention and graduation rates among American Indian students.
"For undergraduate students, NASA has taken the lead in creating and supporting student leadership and campus engagement for Native American students," Francis-Begay said. "The office provides a home away from home environment, advocating for students and helping them navigate a large university culture."
There, staff not only aid students, but also help others across campus to become aware of students' specific academic, social and cultural needs.
For Steven Martin (Muscogee), NASA's program director, and his collaborators, considering the range of barriers students face and ensuring a campus environment that recognizes and respects the diverse experiences and cultural backgrounds of American Indian populations are top priorities.
"One of our main goals is to make sure to teach higher education professionals what can be done to honor and validate our students to make sure they are meeting their needs," Martin said, adding that it is crucial for people to also understand that differences exist between tribal nations.
"Cultural continuity is so important when students get here, and tribal identity is such a delicate issue," Martin said. "It's not just about finding people who look like you. You have to find people who share your background and share your same values."
Responding to Students' Specific Needs
As Martin emphasized, American Indian students are distinctive in ways that require institutions be especially responsive to their academic, financial and social needs.
"I always tell students when they come that they have to be teachers as well as students," Martin said. "What it means to be Navajo, Hopi or Tohono O'odham is different, and we can learn from them."
Some American Indian students who have lived on reservations, pueblos and in rural communities may struggle to adjust to university life, especially in a larger city, Francis-Begay said.
Such students also tend to remain deeply involved with their tribal communities after leaving home, Martin said. For example, students must return to their tribal nations to participate in ceremonies and other rituals, which can require coordinating days away from campus with faculty, he said.
In addition to NASA, numerous other academic programs, initiatives and groups address the specific needs of American Indian populations, including a variety of UA student-led clubs and organizations and the "O'odham Ki:" (pronounced AW-THAM-KEE) community wing in the Kaibab-Huachuca residence hall.
And in addition to MESA, the UA Office of Early Academic Outreach supports the Native American Science & Engineering Program (NASEP), which provides American Indian students in high schools with college preparation opportunities.
Kee credits some of the UA's resources, along with her family, for aiding in her success.
Today, Kee is aiding in a drive at the student support centers for American Indian students at both the UA and Arizona State University, collecting clothing and toys for children and families to benefit Hogan Hozhoni Christian Child Care Services in Window Rock, Ariz.
Eventually, Kee plans to return to the Navajo Nation and commit to a career as a social worker aiding neglected and abused children and adolescents.
"It was really a culture shock to come from such a small community to campus," said Kee, who was crowned Miss Native American UA for the 2012-2013 academic year. "Having that support makes being here more comforting."