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College student retention requires focus on differences

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BILLINGS, Mont. ? A major research project to keep American Indian students in school remains focused on four tribal colleges in Montana.

Coordinator Iris HeavyRunner said the Family Education Model is a joint effort of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the University of Montana's Department of Social Work, Blackfeet Community College, Fort Peck Community College, Salish Kootenai College and Stone Child College on the Rocky Boy's Reservation. Part of the project included placing paid family specialists at each of the schools to work with at-risk students.

The model grew out of welfare reform polices in the last decade that pushed many tribal members off assistance rolls and into school and the workplace. Now four years old, the project has examined why successful American Indian students stay in college while others drop out, HeavyRunner said during a workshop at the recent National Indian Education Association convention in Billings.

Above all, successful students are able to build a closely knit support network around themselves as they make the transition into postsecondary academics, said HeavyRunner, who works as a research associate at the Fort Peck school. Therefore, administrators are wise to schedule as many events as possible that will bring extended families onto campuses, she said.

'We always look to our family first. If that's not there, we look to our friends. Those students who are successful have at least one person they can depend on.'

Along with friends and family, school registrars and financial aid counselors are key contacts for those just starting college. But if these officials aren't tuned into specific cultural needs, the students may be more likely to quit school or not start at all.

Another important factor that keeps students in school is ties to their culture and language, said HeavyRunner, Blackfeet, who is working on a doctorate in social work through the University of Minnesota.

'The language is the key to the philosophy of the culture. It makes you stronger.'

American Indian people stay resilient through prayer and ceremony, their tribal identity, as well as by staying sober, staying connected with their extended families and becoming acquainted with other Indian professionals, she added.

But while all those factors may be in place, American Indian students still may fail in college if they don't have adequate care for their children while they are in class or studying, if they don't have dependable transportation, if they don't have help tackling academic difficulties, or if they're suffering from extended grief or depression, HeavyRunner said. Among other barriers are geographic isolation, poverty, high unemployment, housing shortages, single parenting and multigenerational psychic trauma.

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'You cannot dismiss these things in anything you do with Indian students,' HeavyRunner advised.

A continuing challenge that American Indian students often face is teaching their families about the demands of their education. Some family members, for example, may become resentful about taking care of children while their relative attends college, HeavyRunner said, adding that the process 'takes lots of adaptation for everyone.

'One of our most important retention specialists is our grandmothers,' she added. 'They have a lot of power.'

Statistics taken from the four Montana colleges show about 70 percent of the students are female, 85 percent live belong the federal poverty line and more than 50 percent are single parents. The students' average age is 27.

Noting these figures, HeavyRunner said tribal colleges clearly are not doing enough to attract and retain male students, even though 91 percent of all their graduates find employment.

Faculty and staff members must also be included in retention efforts, she said, adding that Fort Peck Community College has developed campus-wide 'search and rescue' teams to help identify high-risk students and work with them before their problems become critical.

'If you loop in the faculty, they know you're serious,' she said, noting Fort Peck has a student retention rate that tops 80 percent.

HeavyRunner said that while American Indian students are the same as others in many ways, the important differences in their backgrounds can determine whether they will remain in school or bolt for non-academic endeavors.

'There's a different way that you think,' she said of Indigenous people in general. 'There's a different way that you hear things. But if we only focus on the things that have been taken away, we cannot move ahead.'

The main components of the model incorporate networking, cultural activities, counseling, mentoring and teaching various life skills such as stress management, problem-solving, parenting and enhanced interpersonal communication. The topics were rolled into three college courses offered through a statewide interactive video system coordinated by Salish Kootenai College. The model is now being advanced to other areas of the nation, HeavyRunner said.