OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

OSU program smooths path for American Indian-Alaskan Native students

03/31/1997

CORVALLIS - As Oregon State University develops three offices to target recruitment and retention of Asian-American, Latino and African American students, planners are looking to OSU's Indian Education Office as a model.

Established in 1991, the office has boosted American Indian and Alaskan Native enrollment at the university from 140 to 200 students and is working to assure that once students are on campus, they earn their degrees, said Michael McCanna, acting coordinator for the Indian Education Office.

"The main functions of the Indian Education Office are recruitment, retention of students and educating the university about Indian issues," McCanna said, "and when we talk about retention we mean much more than persistence.

"Our goal is to work for the steady and timely progress toward a degree, and hopefully assist many of our students in the transition to graduate school," he added.

One issue that touches all facets of his mission is smoothing the transition from high school to university life.

"What many people at the university level don't understand is that many of these students come from reservations or small isolated towns to a university of 14,000 students," McCanna said. "Then they enter freshmen chemistry 101 and there may be as many people in that class as in their entire village back home."

Social customs are sometimes a hurdle, McCanna said. Although emphasis is placed on individuality in the typical American home, for many Native Americans, family and community are the primary values. Individual recognition and the competitive nature of higher education systems often makes these students uncomfortable.

Language can pose another hurdle. While all Indian students speak English, the English language may not be the language spoken most frequently in their homes.

"I've been in Eskimo villages where English is incorporated into their speech, but isn't really the language spoken," said McCanna. "English words and phrases are thrown into the conversation interspersed amidst the local native language.

"When they leave that environment and arrive at the university, it can be a real culture shock. These students, having come from very close-knit communities, show up on campus with no friends or support group. People have to understand that often these students are the first in their family, or even their village, to go to college. They may have no idea what to expect, or what to do once they get here.

"While we have no intention of being their parents," McCanna pointed out, "we can often take on the role of a big brother or an uncle or aunt and make ourselves available to assist them as they adjust to university life."

To smooth the transition, the Indian Education Office sponsors a variety of programs designed to put students at ease. Just before fall term begins, Indian students are invited to a week-long special orientation where they can meet other Indian or Alaskan Native students.

"For orientation, we have a tour of the campus and introduce them to current and former OSU students. We also have professors come in and talk to them about what will be expected of them in the classroom."

For students who lack the funds to start or complete their OSU education, the office helps students locate scholarships. In addition to listing scholarship sources, the Indian Education Office actively seeks donors willing to fund scholarships, McCanna said.

While McCanna and his staff work closely with Indian students, he said his office can't succeed in a vacuum.

The staff works on activities that involve all members of the campus community, as well as reaching off-campus. Students often are called upon to give a tribal perspective on topics in university classrooms, and they also go into the community to give talks at schools and organizations, McCanna said.

"It is essential that the Indian Education Office maintain close contact with the tribal and urban Indian communities throughout the state."

The office also helps develop academic programs on campus, including the ethnic studies department, which opened in September of 1996.