The Native American College Experience: Leaving Home in Pursuit of Knowledge

native american college student

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Like any other high school graduate, the chance to leave home and further your education at college is one of the best opportunities you can ever get in life. But if you’re coming from a Native American reservation, the transition is much more complicated than that. Native American students endure cultural and lifestyle changes more on par with the experience of being a foreign exchange student. After spending their lives growing up on a reservation with close friends and family and a certain way of life, Native American students can sometimes find the college experience overwhelming.

It’s these challenges that conspire in saddling Native American students with higher-than-average dropout rates. But these risk factors don’t have to affect your college experience. By understanding the unique challenges of a Native American college student, you can position yourself to thrive and return a more educated member of your tribe. Here are some tips to help you reach your goals.

Take advantage of scholarship opportunities

Money can be problematic for many college students, but a number of scholarships are available to help students of Native American descent. As soon as you can, visit your school’s financial aid office to find scholarships that you qualify for. Focus on minority and Native American-specific scholarships. With numerous available options, you could significantly reduce your learning expenses.

Prepare for the shock of dorm life

Dorm living is foreign to most college students upon arrival, but in addition to tight living quarters, many Native Americans struggle with adapting to the prevailing culture. While it might feel intimidating, making friends is the best way to boost your comfort level. Don’t try to hide who you are or the culture you come from; instead, accept this as part of your identity and don’t be afraid to share it. If you’re comfortable with your identity, others will be, too.

Dealing with homesickness

Homesickness is normal, but because you’re enduring such a dramatic shift in your daily life, these changes might feel more dramatic. A number of strategies can be used to cope. First off, making phone calls, sending emails, and engaging in other communication with your family and friends from home can be extremely useful. You might also visit your school’s multicultural center to connect with other students experiencing similar daily struggles.

And you can make your dorm a more inviting, warm place by bringing with you some mementos from home. Choose symbolic items that remind you of home and your heritage. For example, if you’re a Chickasaw Nation member you might benefit from an item that reminds you of the tribe’s “unconquered and unconquerable” motto, giving you some added resolve in moments of doubt. These simple items from home can make your dorm much more comfortable.

Combating discrimination

Unfortunately, discrimination does sometimes rear its ugly head on a college campus. Whether from classmates or even professors, you don’t deserve to be exposed to this unfairness. Most colleges and universities have strict discrimination rules and a clear path to action for any student being harmed. Check your school’s handbook or directory and visit the appropriate staff. If you’re unsure of what to do you can contact the local multicultural center.

Grappling with homework

For some Native American students, the leap from studies in the reservation classroom to studies at the college level can be difficult—even overwhelming. Student support services are available to help you succeed. Take advantage of these resources, whether in the form of tutors, teaching assistants, one-on-one office time with professors, general learning centers or all of the above. With hard work and dedication, you’ll get the grades you want.

College is hard on a lot of students, and Native American students have some more challenges to overcome. But the benefits are so numerous that you shouldn’t let some initial struggles steer you away from a college education. Your perseverance will pay off immensely as you enrich your education and develop skills and expertise to last a lifetime.

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