Following an assignment at a regional state university, I returned this semester to the Crownpoint, NM, campus of the Navajo Nation’s Diné College where I have been an instructor for 15 years. I was reminded once again of the sharp contrast between mainstream institutions and tribal colleges. This is a contrast I already knew well—having spent 30 years on the faculty at a liberal arts college in the eastern United States—but it became all the more clear after spending the fall semester at the larger institution, where I taught a Native Identity course for first-year reservation students adjusting to college life.
The difference between my two experiences became more apparent when I reflected on a recent class in Crownpoint. During a preliminary dictionary exercise, I asked students to define words from an essay about nearby Chaco Canyon by archaeologist David Grant Noble. This assigned reading was slightly beyond easy grasp, which typifies the readings I assign as samples of college-level reading.
Several stumbled with the term “tributary,” confusing it with “tribune” or “tribute”—something I expected from freshmen with little training on dictionary use. In Crownpoint, the lesson led to an explanation of how a dictionary reflects the addition of prefixes and suffixes to a common stem in a list of related terms, and then to a lesson on wholesale definitions.
Drawing on their familiarity with the nearby ruins, class participation increased as students discussed first encounters between the agricultural Pueblos and the then-nomadic Navajos. Students raised firsthand experiences, and the discussion was punctuated with good-natured banter and even laughter.
An easy engagement occurs since students are familiar with one another and more comfortable in a classroom close to home. That kind of dynamic is less likely in a mainstream university atmosphere, where students are adjusting to so much else that is new and foreign. Of course, I may add to the comfort of the students; Crownpoint is the more familiar setting for me, too. I am known here and accepted.
These experiences suggest to me that some reservation students are better off beginning college at home.
It’s simplistic perhaps, but from a classroom window, the Crownpoint students can see the familiar horizon of nearby mesas and far-off vistas. They enter the building through a lobby to encounter blood or clan relatives who are often classmates. These are people they have known all their lives.
Based on what I have seen, when they find themselves among strangers in classrooms at mainstream universities far from home, some students sense heavy peer pressure, may or may not listen, do not volunteer questions and comments, and more readily respond with passive silence when called upon in the classroom.
Indeed, for a reservation student, campus culture can be distracting. A familiar daily routine back home gives way to new dimensions of freedom, unanticipated temptations, peer pressure, and sometimes a sense of alienation not at first recognizable. Family constraints are suddenly absent. The school day is less structured, as are evenings, even with homework to be done. Socializing can become explosive in the dorm, bringing new acquaintances, unsupervised living for some, and frightened withdrawal for others. In a way more subtle than students realize, the more cosmopolitan atmosphere can divert attention from academic accountability and self-discipline.
I can easily give examples after those two consecutive fall semesters teaching at a regional state university—not to be critical but to draw attention to what I have observed in contrast with the tribal campus, where students may also come ill prepared. At the tribal college, developmental courses are routine, faculty know the immediate culture, family ties are not suddenly severed, and thus the adjustment is less stark.
Virtually every one of the more than 30 university freshmen I taught from a half-dozen far-flung reservation communities arrived unprepared for a heightened set of demands. One joined the rodeo team and spent weekends traveling the circuit with her family, for example, when she would have been better off studying. Another missed two weeks of class to help her grandfather care for his livestock because no other family member could. The sudden death of a grandmother sidetracked still another, who never regained traction. One dropped out after the third week when a family member ran afoul of the law.
In many cases the allure of extracurricular activities and residential life provided an escape from the reality of classroom demands. Students were often inexplicably absent, suggesting possible alcohol or drug abuse. Caught up in a flurry of expanded connectivity, some who may have been overachievers in their high school classroom became absorbed in cyberspace.
Other small incidents drew resistance and even hostility, something far less likely to occur in my Crownpoint classroom. Some regarded my comments on papers as disrespect; others resented being called on in class. To some, my role as teacher was intimidating.
But above all, I remained a stranger in the atmosphere of a large, more impersonal institution and a bigger town. Marking up a paper with comments or sending someone to the Writing Center was intrusive, whereas students feel comfortable approaching me for help in the more intimate Crownpoint atmosphere. There I can declare that work has to be turned in for a passing grade because I have come to be regarded as a tribal elder. In the university setting, I was just another authoritarian teacher competing with the novelty of extracurricular life.
I do not say outright that no tribal students should apply to a conventional university. But the right college choice matters to the student and the community. For my part, I like to see the students I teach at Crownpoint earn an associate degree there—even if some have come back from a false start at a distant college to try again—then go on to graduate from a four-year school, even earn a graduate degree, and best of all return to the reservation as a teacher, a healthcare worker, a tribal administrator, or an entrepreneur. Back at home again, they can be an educated role model ready to serve as a mentor to youth facing a post-secondary destiny.
Paul Zolbrod is emeritus professor of English at Allegheny College and is now completing his 50th consecutive year as a college teacher with a special interest in teaching composition at the entry level. He is the author of Diné bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story, among other books and articles.