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Beating the odds

By Stephanie Corns
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 15, 1999
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Christina Moreno's accomplishment seems ordinary on the surface.

Moreno, a member of the Tohono O'Odham Nation, will graduate in May and join a minority of American Indian students receiving diplomas.

She is part of the 17 percent of American Indians nationwide to attend college - and will be among the roughly 4 percent that graduate, according to the American Indian Digest.

"I'm the first to go to college in my immediate family," said Moreno, a marketing major. "I didn't know if I could finish."

There were 762 American Indians enrolled at the UA in 1998 - a record high over the past decade. Yet at the UA, dropout rates are higher for American Indian students than any other minority.

Of the 40 percent of American Indian freshmen enrolled in 1994, 7 percent graduated. Twenty-nine percent of white non-Hispanic students received diplomas in 1994.

"Native Americans have the lowest graduation rate of any racial or ethnic group nationwide," said G. Bruce Meyers, assistant dean of Native American Student Affairs.

Only three of every 100 ninth-graders will complete a four-year college degree according to a report by the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California.

The discouraging numbers, however, are not primarily students' fault, Meyers said.

"A lot of students are first generation. They have no idea what to expect," he said. "They come to campus and it's total culture shock. (They feel) overwhelmed and isolated."

Moreno said she felt discouraged by the size of the UA and did not know where to find help.

"I didn't really know what to expect. I was kind of lost because it was so big," she said. "My parents kept pushing me. If they said I can do it, I must be able to do it."

Meyers said that student, family and faculty involvement are important to help students succeed. He also attributed the low retention rate to the university.

"There are institutional issues that need to be addressed," Meyers said. "It's not due to a lack of intelligence. It's that the university dropped out on them."

He added that universities should offer more "than skimpy budgets so (there) can be a little more than a cultural drop-in center."

The Native American Student Affairs program is sponsoring a weekend-long conference geared at improving retention rates from April 17- 19 in the Memorial Student Union.

"Our goal is to share ideas with other programs across the country who work to promote retention and graduation," said Dellina Bergen, conference coordinator. "We want to talk about what the best strategy is to keep Native Americans students in school."

Moreno said cultural traditions posed a problem for her, but stressed the importance of tapping into campus resources.

"We (American Indians) don't seek help unless it's devastatingly necessary," she said. "I had to break out of my shell and look for help. The only reason I made my way through the system is because I asked for help."