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Sunday, September 21, 2014 | Last updated: 9:09am

UA needs greater commitment to Native American students



The UA is at risk of failing to deliver upon one of the goals outlined in President Ann Weaver Hart’s “Never Settle” plan: our commitment to emphasize our diverse cultures and to make resources more accessible to all students. I am specifically concerned about our commitment to graduating Native American students.

According to the latest statistics given by the UA, the percentage of Native American undergraduates graduating within six years is roughly 20 percent lower than the average rate among all students. However, we have made continual and significant progress in this direction. For example, in 1990, the rates were half of what they are today. The UA currently ranks 11 out of 12 schools in the Pac-12 for graduating its Native American students in six years or less.

However, even if we continue to improve, it does not necessarily mean that we’re succeeding. Without increased efforts, this positive trend will not continue.

There are several reasons to believe that graduation rates of our Native American students will either decline or stagnate going forward, and I will briefly cover two of the most obvious ones.

First, there are almost 1,200 Native American students on campus and the resource center for them, Native American Student Affairs, has one full-time employee ­— the program director — and one graduate student assistant. Steve Martin (no, not that Steve Martin) is the program director, and has a done a tremendous job at promoting the well-being of our Native American students, but he is only one person serving the needs of more than 1,000. Furthermore, given the lack of campus commitment to NASA, it’s not clear how large of a role it can play in emphasizing the Native American culture on campus.

Secondly, there is virtually no attempt by the Associated Students of the University of Arizona to incorporate the UA’s cultural centers. ASUA has access to massive amounts of funding and resources on campus, but it does not bode well for the vision outlined in the Never Settle plan if ASUA exists predominantly for white upper-class students. A partial concession is in order: There are few students within the cultural centers that want to become a part of ASUA because of its image of being a white upper-class clique. This image exists, deserved or not, and as such all parties must work to resolve it.

At this point, one might wonder: Why should Native American students receive extra help? College is a difficult place for everyone to adjust. Native American students are not special in that regard, so why do they deserve extra attention?

This mentality assumes that all struggles are the same, which is simply false. The difficulty of a typical American adjusting to college life is not the same as for a Native American. To understand why, consider that there are few places in America, outside of a reservation, where Native Americans can practice their culture without feeling alienated. On the other hand, American culture is rather ubiquitous at the UA and its norms are easily recognizable to the typical American. Such an explanation does not even begin to cover the well-founded mistrust some Native Americans feel toward American institutions, nor does it take into account that the university system is a European construct that is culturally foreign to many minorities. Culture shock is a very real thing for many Native American students and it makes the transition to college much more difficult.

The UA has made progress toward increasing the graduation rates of its Native American population, but for progress to continue, it needs to do more. I have mentioned a couple of reasons for believing that we are not doing enough to promote the continued academic success of our Native students. Other reasons exist, and their complexity is such that a column cannot do them justice. That being said, I urge our administration to ensure that its promise of supporting diverse cultures, inclusivity and student success takes into account the needs of our Native American students, lest the progress we have made is left to stagnate or, even worse, deteriorate.


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