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Improving College Access for Native People

Lowering the barriers to college access for Native Americans — starting with a welcome.
Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz receiving the Alumni Council Award
Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz receives the Alumni Council Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education at HGSE Convocation in 2016
Photo: Jill Anderson

Only about 14% of Native American people attend college, and many often don’t graduate. TaraJean Yazzie-Mintz, currently the CEO of First Light Education, has spent decades trying to lower the many barriers facing Native young people as they try to access higher education.

On the Harvard EdCast, Yazzie-Mintz stressed how higher education needs to focus more on creating a welcoming environment, particularly for Native people. “In higher ed institutions, it's not enough to say the doors are open, because if you're not authentic about opening the doors … [it] creates a whole other series of questions around the relationship," she says. "How do you build that once people walk through the door? If you're not thinking about that question, the institution has the ability to push out people who will feel they're not welcome. And that tends to be a sentiment that is voiced or named or spoken, is that Native students don't belong in these institutions.”



Yazzie-Mintz highlighted some of ways that college campuses can create more intentional belonging and support for their Native students.

  • Be a good “host.” Think about how you welcome a guest into your home and apply that same logic for welcoming Native students. Are they comfortable? Do they have what they need?
  • Be observant and thoughtful about the diversity in your student body, which means knowing and understanding the people who make up the student body. What are their experiences? How are they different from each other?
  • Create a physical space for native students to go and connect. “It provides that break from all the other stuff you are trying to motor though,” Yazzie-Mintz says.
  • Don’t undervalue the importance of faculty being good teachers. It’s common for a university to emphasize faculty research production over how much effort is spent focusing on students, she says. But many students, especially Native students, often share with her how important teaching is and a need to be taken seriously by faculty. “The art of teaching means that you pay attention to who you're teaching,” she says. “Who's in your courses, how do you help them learn, not just to push them off onto a teaching assistant teaching fellow, but to care.”


Jill Anderson: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz knows about the many barriers facing Native people in getting to college. She spent the past few decades working across the sector, creating better access to education. Still, there's this invisibility that's unique to Native people she says. Only about 14% of Native Americans attend college and many often leave. I asked Tarajean about the struggles facing young Native people trying to access higher education in America.

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: For people from Native communities to make their way to college, the conversation has happened at an early age. Our schools that are preparing young people for that opportunity need to have that conversation. So the way in which we flow into institutions of higher education is one area that we can look and understand what's going on in terms of college access for American Indian, Alaskan Natives in the United States. That's one line. There's a whole another way to think about lifelong learning and career opportunities. And so the flip side of that is that we don't ask what are Native families, Native individuals engaged in if they don't go to college? And it's not as if nothing's happening, there's a lot of other kinds of opportunities that people might take advantage of. Become entrepreneurs, work within our tribal governments and work within school systems at levels where they may not need a college education.

There's two sides to that question. There is, when we get to just focus on the college question though, the idea of helping Native students stay in college and graduate, persist and graduate. It's a whole different conversation when you're talking about institutions made for, that weren't developed by Native communities. So we have a whole system out there called tribal colleges and universities. Those are higher ed institutions that were developed by tribal communities or tribal nations. Those kinds of institutions are different than say going to a state college or community college or a place like Harvard. Different purposes for how they were built as institutions and different strategies for what a student might get in those institutions. In terms of support, emotional, social support, academic support, opportunities for career pathways. So all of those pieces come together and I think it's a really important question for institution of higher education to think about, what are we offering in terms of a holistic model to students who historically this has not been their path to gaining a higher education, gaining other pathways to different kinds of careers that require a college degree.

What does that look like? I think is really critical to think about.

Jill Anderson: Would you be willing to share some of your own story because clearly you've gone very far with your own education?

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: Well, I think my story may match with some Native individuals out there, but it's also very, I think, unique. I am a daughter of educators, so I grew up in a family where both of my parents had master's degrees. And if you can imagine that already sets you up for a particular kind of experience in life and knowledge about what all the different opportunities along the way might be in terms of education. And I also had the opportunity to go to a private preparatory school for high school away from my home community. So I grew up in the Navajo nation and when I got to high school I went to a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia. And that experience opened up the world for me in terms of thinking about college in a different way, because college was always a conversation in our family because my parents went to college, earned their graduate degrees.

All of those things, if you can imagine credit stacking up on top of each other over time and experiences, the trajectory that I've had is coming out of that environment growing up and then each of those networks then grows upon itself. So I eventually went to Arizona State University where a different kind of experience was going there and being educated again with other Native students. Because when I went to my preparatory school, I was the only Native student other than my sister who was also there for one year while I was going to school. And so going from a predominantly non-Native educational context into college where then I got to reconnect with other Native students who are also going to college, it just shifted what my experience was like in a state university. And then that flipped again when I went and came here to Harvard to work on my doctorate, coming to a predominantly White institution and being one of maybe three people who are working on a Ph.D. at the time.

And then one of maybe I think we could count ourselves as something like 30 something students at the time that I was here, Native students across the entire system of college all the way up to the PhD programs. Now today I think we're over a hundred maybe even 200 here at Harvard I think. My experience is always been backed up by the fact that both of my parents were educators, deeply rooted in this idea that education is a critical component to helping our communities change. And they were engaged, my parents were engaged in that change on a daily basis. And it's something that just runs through my veins. My brother is a teacher, my sister is a professor at a university. The idea of ending up being teachers in some level or another was like you just blossom, you grow into that role.

Jill Anderson: What would you say is the more typical experience of a Native person on the reservation, a young person, I guess we should say with education?

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: Well, this one's a hard question because I think those that didn't have my experience of preparatory education, having opportunity to be mentored by other Natives as well as Native faculty. Others are as successful as I have been, so there's that. But I think when you refer to that composite of the statistics that we see, those students, those individuals are going through educational systems that are challenging and they can fall into different categories of K-12 education. So it could be a state public school, could be a tribally controlled school, or it could be a federally funded federally controlled school, or it could be a school that is run by a religious organization or be a religious institution. There's a lot of different kinds of education happening in Native communities across the US. So if you imagine those students in these institutions that I think the biggest disconnect is, what are all of the structures between home and school that elevate or support Native students?

And I would say that they're not all there for that composite, that picture, that demographic that shows up in the statistics that we see. It's not just that the education is not of high quality, there's something else going on I think in terms of the opportunities that these students see both within their family, their community and schools. So there's a place, if you can imagine a Venn diagram and there's that little middle point where these circles of support or education for young people, they need to intersect and sometimes they're not intersecting. So home and school's not intersecting or home and community or home and school, they're not intersecting. And when you get the right intersection, I think that that's where you're going to see opportunity for success. When you see a disconnection of those pieces, I think what you're going to see are students who are disconnected from education, disconnected from learning opportunities. There's a couple of different kinds of studies that are out there that look at the status of education.

The K-12, the National Indian Education Study uses NAEPE scores and takes an intersection of American Indian, Alaskan Natives and takes a look at what's going on with this group of students. That measures only their ability to read, engage in science, math, and then there's certain indicators about what success looks like under those components. There's other ways in which we could be looking at success that we haven't been really successful at doing. For me, being more of a qualitative researcher, I'm very interested in the intersections between what students get in terms of support and socio-emotional, more holistic composite of success. And that's a different way to look at what's happening in Native communities for these students. It's not a perfect system, I definitely would agree that it's a very challenging context for Natives to move through and then make their way into a post secondary education experience.

Jill Anderson: One of the things that often comes up is this need to create access and open their doors, but do you think that's really even enough? When hearing you talk, it feels like it's less about just opening the doors and more about going and meeting Native people where they are.

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: This is going to sound really strange, but the idea of institutions opening their door, it makes me think of hosting. Institutions have to be serious about the idea of hosting people into their spaces in ways that are authentic. And what I mean by that is, I don't know how to say it differently, but it's like if you have your own home and you're inviting someone in, what are all the things you need to do to prepare for that person to be comfortable in your home if you're a good host? If you're a good host, you're going to be thinking about what do they need? Do they have food allergies? Do they have ability issues around walking up the stairs? I mean all these different things come into your mind when you're preparing to be a good host to a guest. And in higher ed institutions, it's not enough to say the doors are open, because if you're not authentic about opening the doors and opening the doors then creates a whole another series of questions around relationship. How do you build that once people walk through the door?

If you're not thinking about that question, the institution has the ability to push out people who will feel they're not welcome. And that tends to be a sentiment that is voiced or named or spoken, is that Native students don't belong in these institutions and they at some point or another may articulate that and then leave. There's another side of that that I try to think about the way that I, I'll say survived, was I understood to a pretty good degree what predominantly White institutions were. And I didn't expect that everything would be easy for me and I didn't expect for them to know everything about my background as a Native person. I struggled through, but I figured out what were the resources that I needed to be successful and I focused very strongly on academic preparation. What were the tools that were offered on campus to help me learn what I needed to learn academically?

I felt very strongly grounded in my cultural and social foundation that that's not what I needed when I was in this institutions. I had a very strong understanding of who I am as a Native woman, as a Native college student, I knew who I was, where I came from, who my parents were, and I understood the challenges that my family, cousins went through to be who they are. So to me, to be in these institutions was a luxury. And that for me, contextualizing it that way meant that I could survive going through some of the hardships of the kinds of doubting about feeling you're ready to be there or that you had the right skills and knowledge to succeed. And yeah, I wasn't going to be the A student, I might be the barely passing student. But I was going to stay in it and sometimes that could potentially be good enough.

Jill Anderson: What would make an institution a better host for Native people?

Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz: I can only answer it in parts that probably don't link together very well right now. Being a very observant and planful host means that you know who's coming to your institution, that you've spent some time thinking about what were these young people's experiences coming to us and they might be diverse. My experience coming in to the ed school would be very different than when, a couple of my colleagues who had different experiences coming in and different support systems. And so knowing what that is, Harvard has the Harvard University Native American Program and that was critical, it was a critical physical space as well as a cultural space. And in all these different institutions, there is a need for a space, a physical space where Native students can go and it provides you that break from all that other stuff that you're trying to motor through. I think one of the other things about universities and institutions of higher learning is, there is a disconnect between what faculty you're engaged in and in terms of their teaching and what they're engaged in in their research.

And what I've seen and observed both as a student and then later as a faculty member at any university is faculty's attention and their worth is determined by their research that they produce. Which takes away from them actually focusing in on the students that they're trying to teach. It's not just within the institutions I've worked in, but talking with students across the country, with those that are Native students and students who are not White. They experience this, their education is not being taken seriously by faculty members. So in institution of higher learning, it's a big call to faculty to reconnect with the art of teaching and being connected with the art of teaching means that you pay attention to who you're teaching. Who's in your courses, how do you help them learn, not just to push them off onto a teaching assistant teaching fellow, but to care. Those are things that I know higher ed institutions as an entity have a very difficult identity to overcome. And some of the structures within higher ed institutions create that inability to connect with students who are learners, who are coming to these institutions.

And I think about it this way, when I was teaching, I thought about my students as this are the students who need to change the world and I'm going to give them 100% of my time when I'm teaching them. That was a very different philosophy than some of my colleagues in my same department or even my same school of education. Very different way of thinking about how we spend our time and how we invest in the next generation of educators who are going to ultimately be in these classrooms teaching babies all the way up to PhD students. They all need to be taken care of and a really good host, being a really strong teacher is so central in this question about success. If you're a good teacher, you're going to know what's going on with the students that are sitting in your classrooms.

Jill Anderson: Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz is founder and principal consultant of First Light Education. I'm Jill Anderson, this concludes the spring season of the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Look for special episodes of the Harvard EdCast coming this summer. Thanks for listening.

About the Harvard EdCast

In the complex world of education, we keep the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and our communities.

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast about the ideas that shape education, from early learning through college and career. We talk to teachers, researchers, policymakers, and leaders of schools and systems in the US and around the world — looking for positive approaches to the challenges and inequties in education. One of the driving questions we explore: How can the transformative power of education reach every learner? Through authentic conversation, we work to lower the barriers of education’s complexities so that everyone can understand.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

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