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As a kid, I changed my mind a few times about what I wanted to be when I grew up: first an anthropologist, then a doctor, and now a psychologist. But regardless of my dream career, as an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, I’ve always known I want a job that allows me to give back to my tribal community.

That’s why I am pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Higher education has always represented a significant milestone for me — my heart is with my people, and I know that I can serve Indian Country better by expanding my mind. In pursuing my degree, I am weaponizing my knowledge so that I can fight a world that my people have been left out of for centuries.

But in order for more Native youth like me to be able to access college, institutions of higher learning need to address their ignorance of the realities, histories and cultures of Native communities. Colleges and universities need to remove barriers that prevent Native students from thriving in college.

According to Partnership with Native Americans, “only 17 percent of American Indian students are able to continue their education after high school, facing a number of challenges the average student does not encounter.” Native youth are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools than their white peers, leading them to be underprepared for college. There is a severe lack of educational funding in tribal communities, and a lack of connection with other educational opportunities geographically.

And even Natives who overcome these barriers and make it to an institution of higher education still face obstacles and may have a more difficult time than their white counterparts. There are often cultural distances and language barriers between Native students and non-Native students and faculty. Because of our histories of loss of language, distance from traditional practices and distrust of outside communities, we may feel alienated in academic settings. Each of these gaps diminishes the safety of Native identities in higher-education institutions.

In my own experience attending a non-tribal college, I have faced an intense lack of Native representation. I feel disconnected because I do not relate to other students culturally. (This is similar to my high school experience, where I attended a predominantly white school and felt isolated from my own people throughout my high school learning.) To thrive, I am finding and creating spaces for indigenous people on campus. I know that what I am learning will help me give back to my community in ways I have always hoped to do. I want to be the best I can be for my people, so I can fight for them and myself in a world that has turned its back on us too many times.

The reality is that education in the United States wasn’t built for Native people. In fact, it was built to erase us. From the days of boarding schools used to whitewash and destroy the identities of Native people, to textbooks that only reference Native people as existing in the past, indigenous identities are not respected. Because of the erasure and genocide that Native people have faced since the first encounters with Europeans, we experience deeply rooted intergenerational and historical trauma.

So when Native students enter college, we do so with the knowledge that education is a tool that did not, and in some cases still does not, cater to us. Native students often feel out of place in higher education because they do not feel seen or heard. Still, resiliency and strength run deep in the hearts of our students, as in our communities. Higher education is one way that Native people can gain more knowledge to become politicians, health professionals and legal professionals, and ultimately bring change and improvement to our communities. Higher education can equip Native individuals with knowledge to give us jurisdiction over issues that require our attention.

Tribal colleges, founded over the last 50 years, help ensure this future for Native students and communities. According to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, tribal “leaders recognized the growing importance of postsecondary education, and became convinced that it could strengthen reservations and tribal culture without assimilation.” Tribal colleges are vital because they are located near tribal communities, giving Native students geographic and cultural access to their homelands. Indigenous-based institutions also value cultural awareness and embed it into education because they know that it has positive effects for Native youth.

All colleges can take a cue from tribal colleges and pay more attention to the identities of Native students. Research has demonstrated that programs employing trauma-informed or trauma-specific services can support American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth wellness and help with suicide prevention and self-reliance. This type of specialized approach to students, and willingness to implement specific help, is part of what is needed to give Native students a wholesome experience in academia. These measures can open the door to more Native representation in higher education, which can lead to the betterment of Native communities. Academia should uplift indigenous voices, because we are the first people, the first stewards of this land and the population that never died.

Native people who choose to pursue higher education can counteract generations of oppression by using knowledge and skills to heal Native homelands and communities. I am inspired by my people and our determination to infiltrate spaces and break barriers. I believe in my indigenous peers, the love we all have for our people and our determination to wield what we gain in institutions that were not built to include us.

This story about Native students and higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Abby Rush is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. She is currently a junior at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, where she studies psychology. Rush hopes to continue to give back to her Native people through her poetry and community outreach work.

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