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UC Admissions Drop Hits Native Americans

Friday April 30, 2004

The loss of 11 students is just a drop in the bucket to most college student organizations. But for the Native American Recruitment and Retention Center (NARC) at the University of California, it is enormous. 

Last week when UC Berkeley released statistics about new student admissions for the upcoming year, members of NARC stood in shock when they learned that 11 fewer American Indian students had been accepted to Cal. With Native Americans making up one of the smallest ethnic groups on the UC campus, that represented a 21.6 percent drop from last year, the second worst percentage decline for underrepresented students at the university. Only the 29.2 percent loss of African American UC students (87 less than last year) was greater. 

“Since the numbers have come out, just seeing how the majority [Asian and white populations] increased, it’s really like a stab in the heart for us,” said Lori Garrett, a student and chair of NARC. “It makes us feel like we are invisible.” 

For students like Garrett, the numbers are representative of a larger university and statewide trend that has continually made it harder for underrepresented students to attend college in California.  

Starting with the voter-passed Proposition 209 in 1997, which banned affirmative action in California’s government agencies (including colleges and universities), the state’s public higher education institutions have faced a series of laws, voter initiatives, Board of Regents edicts, escalating budget cuts, and other setbacks in recent years that have devastated minority outreach and retention programs. This year, all monies currently earmarked for state university-sponsored outreach programs are slated to be cut once the governor’s budget passes.  

Budget cuts, besides hurting outreach programs, also raise fees for students and reduce the amount of financial aid the university can offer. 

Like other underrepresented groups that have been affected by these set backs, American Indian students have done their best to come up with creative solutions. The creation and operation of NARC was one of them.  

Established in the mid-1990s, NARC runs a series of student-led recruitment and retention projects. Every year NARC sponsors programs in high school around the state, and sometimes out of state, to encourage Native American students to come to Cal. The group also provides on-campus retention services that help enrolled students stay at Cal. But like other recruitment and retention groups, NARC faces its own set of problems in the process. 

In particular, NARC representatives say they run into a series of unique cultural and historical barriers that make it very hard for American Indian students to attend college. 

“In the past [American Indian communities] really haven’t emphasized education,” said Dallas Goldtooth, a student and member of NARC. “There isn’t a push for the youth to go into education. It’s [because of] multiple reasons. Historically people have been beaten down and they have internalized this. Negativity has been projected upon us until we start believing it. We believe we are incapable of succeeding. It really makes it frustrating to try and go to school and there isn’t support from our community.” 

Goldtooth, who attended a boarding school in New Mexico for the last two years of high school, said he was on his own when it came to college. His parents were as supportive as they could be, but he said they didn’t really understand.  

“People don’t know that you can be Indian and go to college at the same time,” said Garrett. “There is a myth among people that all college is, is a bunch of white rich people. They don’t know that you can be poor and go to college.” 

There is a litany of other problems that also face American Indian students. Many come from rural areas and are frightened about transitioning into a more urban setting. Many have strong family and cultural ties that are hard to leave behind in order to attend school.  

With drop-out rates high in Native American communities, even making it through high school is often a challenge. Goldtooth said the communities he originally came from in Minnesota and South Dakota have a 30 percent graduation rate, and of that 30 percent, only one out of 10 end up going to college. Only one percent actually graduate from college, a number which usually translates into one or two students. 

Cal’s Native American students are not completely alone in their recruitment and retention efforts, however. The university does provide a staff person who recruits American Indian students. Bridgette Wilson is an admission officer for UC Berkeley, but is allowed to spend 50 percent of her time doing recruitment for American Indian students. 

Wilson, like the students, travels around the state encouraging students to come to UC Berkeley. She also does whatever she can to facilitate the process, such as helping them file for financial aid. 

“The campus at Berkeley has displayed their interest and desire to have [American Indian] students on the campus,” said Wilson, citing her hiring as an example of that interest. 

Wilson said she appreciates the campus allowing her to spend at least 50 percent of her time recruiting American Indian students, but still thinks they could do more. In particular, she said the university needs to be more supportive of retention services for the students once they are on campus. 

Alex Alday is an advisor in the student life advising services program. His primary job is a student counselor, but like Wilson, he is allowed to spend a certain amount of time focusing on American Indian students. Alday used to be a full-time student life advisor in the Native American studies department, but was moved to a general counseling position because of budget cuts. With the severity of the budget cuts the university is facing, he said he feels lucky that his office received any resources at all. 

Alday spends time helping American Indian students navigate their schedule, advising them on what classes to take to ensure they graduate on time. He said he also spends much of his time helping students figure out how they will pay for their books, tuition, and other school-related costs. And when they need it, he said he is there for emotional support. Academically, he said all the Native American students he sees are well prepared and motivated, but sometimes fall behind because of added burdens.  

Alday, Wilson and Ruth Hopper, the academic advisor in the Native American studies department, have also set up the Native American Advisory Council to combine their efforts as staff members.  

Students in NARC say their organization does a lot of retention work by providing the support students need to be successful once they are at Cal.  

Goldtooth said he and other students are constantly under strain to go back and support their communities. They also have cultural ties and obligations that draw them away from school. Without support from other students, he said, juggling all these responsibilities would have been much more difficult. 

“I told myself that in order to survive [I had] to find a community. This is a big school and [I] am going to get lost easily,” Goldtooth said. 

One of the larger retention programs NARC holds is their annual campus pow-wow, which attracts people from across the country. The gathering is a time to celebrate and relax. It also serves as a recruitment opportunity for the high school students who attend. 

All the work students put into these programs add up to a what they call a third job. They feel responsible for their community and are willing to put in the time but can also suffer the consequences if they don’t spend enough time on their academics.  

“Recruiting native students is a worry,” said Goldtooth. “As a native person I see it as my responsibility. What doesn’t help is worrying about what’s here, classes, or the Indian community here at Cal.” 

That’s why Goldtooth and other students say even in the face of budget cuts, the university needs to do whatever it can to ensure that American Indian students and other underrepresented groups continue to have the chance to attend and succeed.  

Now, said Garrett, is the time for “the university to invest.”