CORVALLIS - The new OSU Statewide degree programs created by Oregon State University have made what used to be a very tough choice a lot easier for some Native Americans in Oregon.
This fall, for the first time, Indian scholars on the Warm Springs Reservation can pursue a complete bachelor's degree program without ever having to leave the reservation.
For some students and parents who used to think they had to choose between higher education and preserving their cultural heritage, educators say, that's a huge step forward.
"The OSU Statewide concept is helping a lot of people in a lot of different places with many differing educational needs," said Kayeri Akweks, an OSU coordinator of extended learning programs. "But there probably is no place that such educational opportunities are more personally important than on Oregon's Indian reservations."
An age-old quandary, Akweks said, has been young or older Native American students who want the advantages and training of higher education, but were reluctant to leave home for it out of concerns about their special cultural and tribal commitments. Parents sometimes feared losing their children to mainstream society, she said, or their ability to interact with tribal members when they returned.
Akweks - who is of Native American descent - has been working with Oregon's nine recognized tribes. She found that there is a large diversity in what the tribes want from higher education, though, in general, they each prefer to develop and largely control the educational agenda.
All of that is now possible through OSU Statewide, she said.
"This past summer we held our first official class at the Warm Springs Reservation, which was an ethnic studies course on the Native American experience," Akweks said. "It had 13 participants, everyone passed and the instructor said it was a very involved group of students."
That's just the beginning, she said. This fall, a more comprehensive group of course offerings will begin, leading to a bachelor of science degree in either liberal studies or natural resources, with a minor in ethnic studies and Native American emphasis.
Courses to be offered in 1997-98 may include the ecosystem science of Pacific Northwest Indians, an atmospheric science course, the history of Indian education, and Indian law.
Students can take these courses right at the reservation, and also tap into OSU's offerings through Ed-Net, the Internet, or individualized directed learning programs. Other options are available nearby through the university's educational "partner" for that area, Central Oregon Community College.
The programs should not only help serve students of a traditional age, she said, but also be of value to many working adults on the reservation who can't readily leave their home or job to pursue additional education.
"What we think will be the key to success in this venture is that we're not telling the tribes what we can deliver, we're asking them what they want," Akweks said. "Then we try to find a way to deliver it. OSU has worked with the tribes for decades in the past, there has been an exchange, so there's a certain level of trust here."
That same approach is being used with a number of other Oregon tribes, she said, and different types of educational programs may evolve with them in response to their particular concerns. Discussions are under way with the Siletz and Grand Rhonde tribes, and Grand Rhonde has scheduled a class on Indian law in the winter quarter.
Another possibility is the design of special degree programs specifically tailored to the needs of a certain group of students who wish to go through a bachelor's degree program together.
Programs may continue to change somewhat depending on the response of local residents and their level of interest, Akweks said.
Faculty may be regular OSU professors who travel to teach courses, take advantage of electronic educational techniques, or local adjunct faculty retained by the university to teach specific courses.
From a university perspective, officials say, the program is self-supporting, with costs borne by individual students and the tribe considering a financial subsidy.