Upstairs from a dining hall on a snowy evening, four American Indian students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison drum and sing together at a feast for veterans. Drum rituals are an important part of native culture, a valuable way for these students to keep a link to their traditions while living far away from their communities.
This feast was organized by Nichole Boyd, who coordinates advising services for American Indian students on campus. Of Blackfoot, Comanche, Irish and Italian heritage, Boyd considers herself a cultural advocate for UW's 400 American Indian students. She works to increase enrollment and retention among natives at the school.
The National Indian Education Association has the same goal, on a nationwide level. NIEA Executive Director Ahniwake Rose agrees that the best way to retain native students is by supporting them culturally throughout their entire academic careers.
“What that means is they have dedicated staff and support systems that are in place, that identify these students ahead of the curve," Rose said. "We know who they are as they're coming in. We're able to watch them and assist them across their years of college. ...
"And while other universities have done that at the onset, to maybe increase recruitment, it's really the retention rates and making sure that these students stay to fulfill the promises that these universities started, which is what we're focused on right now.”
Sense of alienation
The greatest factor discouraging native students from staying at four-year colleges like UW-Madison, said Boyd, is a sense of alienation from their tribal communities.
“Culture is such a vital part of life for natives that you can't lose that when you come to college," Boyd said. "That's where we're grounded, that's where we're raised, that's who we are. … There's a comfort level of just having your culture around you. We just need to figure out a way to re-create that.”
Emily Nellis was one of those students aching for her community. The sophomore grew up on the Bad River Ojibwe reservation, in northern Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Superior.
When she was accepted to the University of Wisconsin with a full academic scholarship, she had to leave her home and move nearly 500 kilometers south, to Madison.
“At first I hated it," she said. "I didn't want to be here. I was actually really close to just giving up and actually returning home. I didn't realize that I'd grown so accustomed to being able to walk down the road to my grandma's house or being able to go to ceremonies and having them right there.”
But Nellis stayed, realizing that she had an opportunity to help her community prosper in the long run.
“Growing up on the reservation, I noticed so much negativity, how it impacted the families, how it impacted our people," she said. "Why are we having so much alcoholism, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, high school dropouts? Why is this happening? I want to change this.”
Heading home to help
So Nellis is majoring in social work, with a minor in American Indian studies. UW-Madison is one of more than 100 American colleges that offer such a program. After attending graduate school, Nellis plans to work on or near her reservation, perhaps through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Until then, she hopes to help welcome still more native students to the campus.
And Boyd plans to hold more events like the UW-Madison powwow, an Indian gathering and dance competition scheduled for this spring. She said high school students are invited and are encouraged to take part.
“We intentionally have a couple dances or specials or things that we do for kids that are possibly future UW students ... just to let them know that this is some stuff they can participate in when they go to college,” Boyd said.
Boyd, the National Indian Education Association and other organizations providing academic and social support to native students have their work cut out for them.
While the number of young American Indians enrolled in college more than doubled in the past 30 years, they still represent less than 1 percent of all students in U.S. higher education, and nearly 60 percent of them drop out before completing their degrees.