Less than 20 percent of Native American students who finish high school go on to college. Of those students, statistics show at least 60 percent will drop out before graduation.
Educators at the University of South Dakota believe their students can be the exception. Through a cooperative effort of academic and social programs, students become part of a multigenerational net, designed to catch anyone at risk of losing their way.
Earning a college degree can be a daunting enterprise. For those coming from rural and Reservation communities, a campus like the University of South Dakota in Vermillion can make a person long for familiar surroundings.
"A big part of that is because of that familial, multigenerational family concept that we see on a lot of Reservations. The idea of tiospaye, which is that extended family. So everybody around you. And I think that's why we have a bigger issue with homesickness," said Sarah Brokenleg, project coordinator of the Native American Scholars Program (NASP) at the University of South Dakota School of Medicine.
Leon Leader Charge is studying Addiction Studies and Psychology. Before coming to USD, he attended a Tribal college.
"When I came to USD, it was definitely a little more frightening for me to jump in a larger pool of students. And being a little older student, at first I felt out of place. But then I talked to my mom - she was a student here in the 70's so she really helped ground me - a support system. And Mr. Thin Elk has been there for me from the beginning and he's one of the main reasons I came here," said Leader Charge.
Gene Thin Elk is director of the Native American Cultural Center, an unassuming building that plays a big role in the lives of students feeling a little lost in a mainstream university.
"This place – one time I heard one of our students say ‘You know, I can go throughout campus and learn all of these different things that are going on and get my education, but when I finally come back into the Native Cultural Center, I can take a deep breath and be who I am,'" said Thin Elk, "'I don't have to explain anything about my culture, you know, I can speak my language here, I can just be who I am' and I think that says a lot."
In addition to creating a safe, welcoming space, Native Student Services hosts dinners and ceremonies aimed at building a sense of community - part of which is the inclusion of local elders.
"The fact that we have elders here means a lot. The great plus to that is not only are they elders here, but every one of our elders here are alumni of the University of South Dakota. We have elders with PhD's, EdD's, and Masters and Bachelors, so they've gone through the system themselves," said Thin Elk.
That emphasis on mentorship extends not only between generations and between students, it also extends into the professional world.
"The great thing about NASP is it does focus on healthcare and health disparity work and research, so we try to really expose them to opportunities for them to learn more about health disparities that are impacting their home communities and what they can do to address those. But also learning from other Native healthcare professionals," said Brokenleg.
Made possible through a National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities grant, the program focuses on four core areas, aimed at helping students create a well-rounded life beyond their time at USD.
First is belonging.
"With belonging, part of that is the group efforts we do - we want students to feel this is their healthcare career family," said Brokenleg.
Followed by independence, mastery and generosity.
"Giving of your time outside. I think if you move into a community, and I think it's the same way in any rural, smaller community anywhere. Not just Reservations. You need to become a community member," said Brokenleg.
It's an educational environment aimed at working with- rather than against - tradition, to attain long-term success.
"They are who they are and education is a wonderful acquisition to be able to express who they are and be able to go home and help our people in some manner," said Thin Elk.
"I'd definitely like to go back home and work in the community some time. But right now, I'm looking for experience after I graduate, so the door is wide open to the whole world, I guess," said Leader Charge.
It all starts with an environment of inclusiveness.
"At the University of South Dakota, we're very blessed in the sense that all the way from administration to working throughout campus, that we have the opportunity to provide a real strong support system for our students, our Native students. And they have a home here on campus because of the native cultural center," said Thin Elk.
Efforts seem to be paying off. Brokenleg tells KSFY News that this past year, USD had higher retention rates of Native American students than any other ethnicity, if you account for population.
And another success - NASP recently had its first student accepted to medical school. He chose USD.
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