Grant seeks to make college more accessible to Oregon's Indigenous youth

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new grant seeks to make college more accessible to Oregon’s Indigenous populations through purposeful collaborations with tribal communities.

The three-year, $289,000 grant to Oregon State University and Southwestern Oregon Community College is a true partnership to develop programs and pathways in higher education, said Jeff Sherman, a principal investigator on the grant who leads OSU Extension Service’s Open Campus program.

The two institutions will partner with the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Programs and support will be offered through OSU Extension and Oregon State Ecampus.

The project will focus on outreach to pre-college Indigenous youth to improve access and understanding of steps toward college entry and tuition, and remove systematic barriers to community college and university completion.

In the fall of 2019, only 0.5% of OSU’s total enrollment – 172 students – identified as American Indian/Alaskan Native. Oregon’s Native American/Native Alaskan population was 1.8%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“This is an opportunity for OSU to step up and be a leader,” said Allison Davis-White Eyes, a member of the grant’s steering committee and director of community diversity relations in the Office of Institutional Diversity at OSU.

If successful, the overall goal is to be able to tailor the program to other nine tribes in Oregon, Davis-White Eyes said.

“We can begin to reimagine our relationships moving forward,” she said.

The grant builds on recommendations from strategic proposals in 2017 and 2018 that seek to promote tribal goals such as ensuring all Native American and Indigenous students receive a quality education and have equity in access and achievement. With open lines of communication, the grant’s project coordinators hope to begin addressing the historical disconnect between land-grant universities funded by federally-granted land that was expropriated from Indigenous communities.

Barriers to higher education are pervasive for first-generation students, and they are compounded if students are Black, Indigenous and people of color. Obstacles can include access to traditional ecological knowledge within educational experiences like internships, which the grant will help develop. In addition, the grant will pay for scholarships to expand access to students who would like to attend either SWOCC or OSU.

More complicated problems, such as Indigenous students feeling invisible in the classroom and in textbooks, require more creative and institutional solutions, Sherman said. That’s why the grant emphasizes community-building and support. Funding will be provided to tribal elders to compensate mentors for their support to students. Faculty participating in the program will act as advocates and mentors for Indigenous and will be trained in part through OSU’s Social Justice Initiative and concepts of traditional ecological knowledge, also known as Native American science.

The program’s participants will benefit from knowing that a committee of senior faculty and tribal members are working collaboratively to heal historical gaps in understanding and respect, according to the grant.

The grant’s project leaders will meet regularly with tribal leaders, who are also member’s of the grant’s project team, to ensure that these efforts are participatory and responsive to tribal communities and students. Tribal leaders will help with cultural mentoring workshops for faculty members to help build understanding, common language and dialogue around the need for decolonization efforts, and the value of incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into STEM education settings.

The grant was made by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, through its New Beginnings for Tribal Students program.

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