The market is full of books on how to get into and succeed in college, but few of those books are targeted at students who may be the first in their family to go beyond high school. Even fewer are targeted specifically to the needs of Native American students.
Two faculty members at Washington State University have sought to fill that need with a handbook titled The American Indian and Alaskan Native Student’s Guide to College Success, published in 2007.
The book is for students, but it’s also for “quite a range of stakeholders,” says Michael Pavel, the author and associate professor in the College of Education. “It is being used by community leaders, others within the tribal government system, and teachers, to name a few.”
He brings the insight of an education expert who has also overcome the challenges of being an American Indian in a traditionally Caucasian college setting. His co-author, Ella Inglebret, is an assistant speech and hearing sciences professor who for several years administered a program to recruit and support American Indian students. The two weave together their advice with students’ own words, profiles of Native Americans who have gone through college, and lists of resources as well as advice on problem solving and a guide for understanding financial aid terminology.
Among the students they profile is Justin Jacob of the Yakama Nation who graduated from WSU in 1997 with a degree in science and mathematics and a teaching certificate. After teaching math at Wapato High School for four years, he returned to WSU for an engineering degree.
When he first came to WSU, Jacob felt out of place both socially and academically. “Socially, I was a brown kid in a sea of white kids. Fortunately, I was athletic, and that helped me fit in.” Then, once he settled in, he struggled with believing he was capable of tackling the more difficult classes and balancing his social, academic, and athletic activities. Once he found that balance, everything seemed easier.
Other profiles include American Indians who attended Dartmouth, University of New Mexico, and the University of Oklahoma. One cites a high school counselor who told him “Indians don’t go to college.” Another tells the story of dropping out of college, and eventually finding his way back, discovering a love of language, and graduating cum laude to later be accepted to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Pavel and Inglebret tackle all kinds of issues, including homesickness, choosing a school, family support, and retaining a sense of cultural heritage while in an environment of assimilation. They offer simple advice, like to start saving for college while in high school and to push into more challenging classes. They offer ideas for visiting and choosing a college, and give cues about how, once in college, to maintain a sense of identity.
Beneath it all they weave a thread of giving back, how through education students can find a new role either at home or out in the wide world that will help their home communities.
At age 15, Pavel, a member of the Skokomish Nation, was charged by his elders to get a Ph.D. Pursuing a higher education was the furthest thing from his mind, he says. “I still had to figure out what Ph.D. meant at that time.”
But he found his way to college, first attending the University of Puget Sound and later Arizona State University for a Ph.D. in Higher and Adult Education. He joined the College of Education at WSU in 1999, taking on teaching responsibilities as well as those of developing partnerships with community colleges and local K-12 schools serving American Indian and Alaskan Native students.
Last year, Pavel was given WSU’s first Faculty Diversity award in recognition of his work mentoring and teaching students at WSU as well as his outreach to communities across the state and region.