ASU program gives Native American students the tools to make the transition from reservation to university
Native American students who go from a reservation or rural community to a large university such as Arizona State University often face issues that others on campus can’t fathom.
Feelings of culture shock, isolation and difficulties adjusting to big-city life can be enough to derail college dreams. Just ask ASU sophomore Catalina Flores, a first-generation college student from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe near Tucson.
“It’s a completely different environment and like stepping into a whole new world,” Flores said.
Recognizing the unique challenges, ASU’s American Indian Student Support Services organizes an early start program geared specifically toward Native students making the rural to urban transition. The program, Student Preparedness Initiative: Readiness Inspired by Tradition, gives students two weeks to acclimate to the university, connect with friends and mentors, and learn about resources and student organizations before the start of the fall semester.
Students in the 2016 SPIRIT cohort will also hear from peer ambassadors such as Flores, who will be able to share how she navigated the emotional struggles of her first year at ASU: “Always remember where you came from and stay focused on your mission for coming to college in the first place.”
Laura Gonzales-Macias, associate director of American Indian Student Support Services, said the purpose of SPIRIT is to “create a successful environment for Native American students and to strengthen their confidence as well as give them a sense of belonging.” That includes giving equal attention to students’ intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.
The program started July 31 and ends Aug. 12. It includes 79 participants, representing 24 Indian nations and tribes across 31 states.
Native American and indigenous students who grow up on reservations often find themselves suffering from more than run-of-the-mill homesickness. Beyond being separated from friends, family and familiar routines, many are also an ethnic minority for the first time in their day-to-day lives. The number of adjustments can be staggering, but Gonzales-Macias said SPIRIT can help. The first cohort of students in 2014 had a 7 percent higher retention rate than their first-time freshman peers who didn’t attend the program, she said, adding that the 2015 cohort had a 100 percent retention rate into the next school year.
Making connections to other American Indian and Alaska Natives was important to bioscience major Andrea Smolsey, who was born on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona but attended high school in Louisiana. “Growing up in the military, I felt disconnected to my heritage. Coming here and being around other natives who know my family feels good.”
The program featured several group activities and more than 30 presentations and workshops by alumni, Native graduate students and administrators from many ASU student-support units and student organizations.