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American Indians' low population contributes to low retention

By La Monica Everett-Haynes
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 2, 2000
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Although UA's reservation-born American Indian students say they have a desire to attend college, many attribute their peers' floundering retention rates to homesickness.

"On the reservation it's like a close knit family - everybody knows everybody," said Jeff Cordova, hydrology freshman. "University life is big, so you're basically like another number, just another person - whether Indian or not - just another student."

Leeann Garcia, secondary education junior, shared Cordova's opinion. In addition to a faltering sense of community, there are few American Indians in comparison to the overall population of the university, she said.

"The biggest problem is you don't see a lot of brown faces, and you can go a week without seeing someone you know," Garcia said. She added that UA's academics are not overwhelming, but loneliness is.

"There's just a longing to want to go home and eventually you just might want to go home and not because you don't want to go to college, but maybe the transition is too much for you," Garcia said.

Last semester, the UA released retention and graduation rates among the university's student population.

The study showed that American Indian retention and graduation percentages have been the lowest among all college undergraduates completing degrees within five years.

The study also reported that the retention rate for American Indian students have remained dismal over a 10-year period.

"My parents were college educated, so I knew I was going to college; but I knew a lot of people on the reservation who didn't care if their kids didn't go," said anthropology junior Miranda Belarde-Lewis. "Reservation life is simple, and you don't need to have a good education in Zuni - you can make decent money where you live."

In 1998, 63 percent of 113 American Indian freshmen returned to the university for their second year - while 77 percent of 3,725 of Caucasian freshmen returned.

Several students from reservations said they feel intimidated by the university's low population of American Indians.

"You're not familiar with the whole environment and the city," Garcia said. "It's just not comfortable - you are really a minority, and that can be uncomfortable at times, but when you meet people at the center, that helps."

Bruce Meyers, director of Native American Student Affairs, said the reason why American Indian retention and graduation rates are considerably lower than other racial groups is that they aren't given the right tools to succeed in a college atmosphere.

"There is inadequate college preparation, a lack of financial aid and comprehensive funding packages, and no connections to the local community," said Meyers, referring to "Winds of Change," a comprehensive study he wrote in 1996.

Meyers founded RETAIN - Retention in Education for Today's American Indian Nations - and conducted a composite study of 97 nationwide higher education facilities to show why American Indian retention rates remain at a stagnant low.

Meyers said he found many reasons for the low rate: fewer academic support services, a lack of cultural sensitivity toward American Indians and a diminished sense of personal connection to the university.

UA American Indian students agreed.

"We listened to older people, elders and our parents, that is how we were taught to learn," said Denise Fulton, a biochemistry freshman, regarding the difference between reservation and university learning.

Fulton said she often feels lonely at the UA, but said it is a great opportunity to learn the customs and traditions of other cultures. When she feels overwhelmed, she turns to the Native American Student Affairs center.

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