Indigenous students have been rendered virtually invisible in higher education. As an Alaska Native Cup’ik from Chevak who was once a drastically underprepared college student, I understand the challenges Indigenous students face and how to overcome them.
The future of our nation lies in the proper education of our youth — all of our youth. Why, then, are Indigenous students and their academic needs being neglected? As we look back on Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month, we should not only be honoring the cultural traditions and contributions of America’s Indigenous people, but we should also be asking ourselves how education can be more responsive to the values, needs and perspectives of Indigenous students.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I began my first semester taking the lowest level of math and English, though I had completed advanced English and pre-calculus in high school. I repeatedly failed my college courses, but not for a lack of trying. Many Indigenous students, including myself, grow up in small, rural villages, so the culture shock of transitioning from our village to living on a college campus is rattling.
There is a major lack of representation of Indigenous students in academic data, research and curricula. Of the data available from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, Native American students make up only 1% of the U.S. undergraduate population. Here at the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, we are working to change those statistics starting as early as kindergarten.
There are several factors that contribute to the low enrollment of Native American students in higher education. Native students are more likely to attend high-poverty K-12 schools where there is a lack of academic opportunity and frequent turnover of educators, the cost of higher education is high and there is virtually no Native representation in the faculty on college campuses. Put together, this often results in Native students feeling as if they do not belong on a college campus and questioning whether they are even capable of completing a degree.
ANSEP focuses on inspiring students to collaboratively work hard in school early in their academic career and prepares them for higher education with fun, challenging, hands-on, interactive learning exercises and rigorous curricula. The program then guides them through school and provides opportunities along the way.
For the past 27 years, ANSEP’s sequential education model has been successfully making a difference in the lives of Alaska Native and other underrepresented students — including me. ANSEP offers STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-focused components from kindergarten all the way through to a Ph.D.
The full-time Acceleration Academy and University Success components together offer a solution that can support Alaska Native and Native American students across the country. Acceleration Academy allows students to begin taking college courses on campus the moment they enter high school, making it seamless to go from high school to college. Then, University Success continues to offer the support students need to finish their degree once they are living independently on campus.
Students enrolled in Acceleration Academy complete their high school education while simultaneously earning free college credits. The component is offered in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and expanded to the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Bethel this past fall. Alaska Native students and others in these three cities and surrounding areas can apply for the component as early as the end of their eighth-grade year.
When students spend all four years of high school in Acceleration Academy and graduate from the component, they begin college in junior or senior standing. By taking college courses the moment students enter high school, Acceleration Academy eliminates remedial coursework and helps students save on college costs.
Four years in Acceleration Academy saves families $75,000 per student in University of Alaska college costs and the state saves nearly $40,000 per student, making it a win for both the government and Alaska families. We know these savings can impact our students in big ways. According to a Generation Progress and Center for American Progress report families spend $1.3 billion annually on remedial courses, which are eliminated through our component. And, beyond the monetary benefits, the program leads to a more educated and prepared workforce.
Once Indigenous students get to college, the challenges don’t stop. To continue supporting our students all the way through earning their degrees, ANSEP introduced University Success in 1995. The component assists college students in overcoming the challenges associated with cultural differences, language barriers, lack of Native representation on campus, and distance from traditional practices and their communities. The component provides college students the community and resources they need to not only succeed academically and socially, but to also freely and comfortably embrace and practice their heritage in the presence of like-minded individuals.
ANSEP’s University Success component supports college students by providing them a community on campus through co-enrollment, small-group study sessions, professional mentorship, research projects, internships, housing, scholarships and student activities.
For myself and many other Native students, attending college was a huge culture shock. I went from graduating high school at the top of my class of 31 graduating students to failing at least one of my college courses each semester for my first four years. It took me eight years to finish my undergraduate degree.
I only began to excel in college thanks to the support system ANSEP’s University Success component gave me. Thanks to ANSEP, I proudly became the first engineer of my village when I graduated from UAA with a civil engineering degree and a master’s degree in engineering management. I am now proud to serve as the Senior Director of Acceleration Academy.
ANSEP is the only program of its kind in the country making educational opportunities more available to Indigenous students. And it’s one that can be easily adopted by other academic institutions. The success of the program and its components is proof of how implementing higher academic standards and fostering a collaborative environment at any stage in a student’s academic career can positively impact students and the country.
For more Native students to access higher education, academic institutions need to address the realities and challenges Native students face, intervening early in their education journeys. They can start by embracing and executing ANSEP’s sequential education model. Until the model is adopted by more academic institutions, the inequalities that have existed for decades will continue to exist and Indigenous students will remain invisible in higher education.
We are always excited to welcome new students into our program. Applications to join our full-time Acceleration Academy component in Anchorage, Mat-Su and Bethel in January 2022 are available until Dec. 10 and applications to join in fall 2022 are available until March 4, 2022. Alaska students and parents interested in full-time Acceleration Academy can learn more and apply for the spring or fall 2022 semesters. Educators who are interested in learning more about ANSEP can visit www.ansep.net for more information and to get in contact.
Michael Ulroan serves as senior director of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program.
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