I’ve been working on this post for a while, but last week’s comment chain on this post on Jezebel stirred me into action. I’m so sick of the myth that it’s somehow “easier” for Native students get into college, or that the government pays for our whole education. These myths and stereotypes are harmful to Native students and are patently untrue. So I thought we should talk about it.
Dear Native High School Student who was just admitted to college,
First and foremost, congratulations! Yay! I can’t even convey in words how excited I am for you. You are making your family, your ancestors, your tribe, and your community proud. You’ve worked your butt off, putting your studies first, navigating a complex and confusing application process, making difficult choices along the way. After all those essays, standardized tests, and maybe an interview or two, you’ve done it, and I am so proud of you.
After all that work, you now get to reap the rewards. Revel in the excitement of your family, let your mom bring your admission letter to work, let your little brother wear your new college sweatshirt to school. Because you deserve the praise. I know it can feel weird sometimes, but I want you to realize that going to college is not a selfish choice. It’s a choice that will give you the means to give back to your community, and the broader Native community as well. You will have the power to shape the future of Indian Country, and that is the most decidedly un-selfish thing you can do.
But I wouldn’t be being truthful if I told you that things in the next few weeks or months won’t be hard. People may say things to you to try and diminish your accomplishments, and I want you to be prepared, but I also want you to know that they’re 100%, completely and totally, wrong.
When I got into my school, it was the happiest day of my entire life. I remember crying and jumping around my living room for what felt like hours, in complete disbelief that my dream since 5th grade had come true. But at my large, suburban, mostly white high school, others weren’t so kind. Though I had some amazing friends and teachers who supported me, the rumors started flying that I had “checked the Indian box” to “cheat the system” and get into school. My best friend told me “If I were I minority, I’d be going to your school too.” People gave me the side-eye and questioned if my admission was “legit”—while ignoring the other things like loads of AP classes, A’s, community service, and sports that might have, you know, helped. Suddenly, this girl who looked like them, talked like them, was “different,” and that wasn’t “fair.”
In all truthfulness, I went to college feeling like an imposter, having internalized all of these messages. I grew up so far away from my Native community, and had grown up with few Native influences in my life—by no fault of my own—so I thought my classmates must have been right. But from the moment I stepped onto my college campus, I made sure the Native community was a huge part of my life, volunteering at events, working at the Native center, listening, learning, and always giving back. By the end of my four years on campus, there was no question in my mind—I knew I belonged, and that my experience had given me the skills to keep learning, listening, and giving back to my own community, as well as a commitment to serve Native people and Native causes for the rest of my life.
After I graduated, I worked in undergraduate admissions, mostly because I wanted to help support and grow the college community that had given me so much. I was the Native recruiter–traveling out to communities, bouncing over rural dirt roads, presenting hundreds of times to students and families in VFW halls and HS auditoriums. Every year, I read mountains of applications and admitted amazing, talented, incredible Native students. And you know what? Not a single one of them was admitted simply because they were Native. I want to say that again. You were not admitted to college simply because you were Native. You were admitted because your special combination of talent, academics, extra curriculars, and personality was exactly what your college was looking for. Period.
In life, some people will throw around the term “Affirmative Action” like it’s a dirty word. To them, it means “some people” (ie minorities) get an “unfair advantage” in the admission process. Do you know how much “affirmative action” goes on in admissions offices that has nothing to do with race? Students of alumni (“legacies”), athletes, students from underrepresented states, children of wealthy donors, students from low income backgrounds, women interested in science and engineering, LGBT students, students with disabilities, students who have extraordinary talent in something…I could go on and on…they all get “special” consideration in the admissions process. The goal is to create a well-rounded class that represents many different perspectives, not to be able to say the class has X number of Native American students. You were not admitted to college simply because you are Native.
In addition, you as a Native student are in a different position than other students. Your background is not just a racialized one, but a political-social identity as well. You are a citizen (or descendant) of a tribal nation. A nation that is looking for future leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers. Your ancestors signed treaties that promised education for their people in exchange for land, and therefore you have a sovereign right to your education. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. By going to college, you’re directly contributing to the Nation Building of your tribe, building capacity for the future. And that is so incredibly awesome.
So it may be hard in the next few months, and even harder when you get to campus, to hear these messages from your classmates—especially when dealing with the other challenges that come with going away to college. But know that there is a huge, loving, supportive Native community out there holding you up and sending you prayers and good thoughts. There were many strong Native men and women who paved the path before you, and now it’s your turn to make the path even stronger for those behind you. But don’t be afraid to reach out if you need a little extra support—there is always someone willing to help, and needing a boost is not a sign of failure, it’s a sign of your commitment to success. You can do it. You’ll be amazing. I know it.
Readers, tomorrow I’m going to post a compilation of advice/words of wisdom for college-admitted Native students I pulled from Twitter and FB last week. If you have thoughts you’d like to add, or your own personal story to share, email me, or feel free to comment below.
Another post on the topic: