The Office of Return-to-Learn’s outreach project in partnership with Native American Studies 

A picture of Francesca Rodriguez

Above: Francesca Rodriguez. Francesca traveled to six tribal colleges and rural communities across Montana to share her story.

Francesca Rodriguez, the Program Manager at MSU’s American Indian Alaska Native Student Success program, has recently begun working alongside the The Office of Return-to-Learn in AY 2017-2018 on an outreach project aimed toward Native American communities across Montana. With Rodriguez’s aid, The Office of Return-to-Learn—a MSU program that helps students return to school—aims to provide an opportunity for students who have had an atypical educational experience.                                     

Rodriguez states, “I have a story of my own personal journey, about how I was able to graduate with the help of Return-to-Learn. I felt my story echoed a lot of other potential students or students who were students and now aren’t.” When Rodriguez speaks about her outreach she unfailingly places a strong emphasis on hospitality: “I try to feed people at the minimum.”

Rodriguez always creates a relationship between herself and her future audience. She states that she is “really passionate about being an advocate for people to come to college” and that, “we need an education if we are going to, at all, have a shot in trying to either change things or even just trying to keep things the way we like to do them.” After becoming familiar with the community that she’s visiting, Rodriguez will organize and host a food, gift, and information filled gathering for future MSU students. During her speech, Rodriguez retells her own story of heartbreak and drama before explaining how returning to school afterward positively shaped who she is today.

Rodriguez’s most memorable presentation took place on the Fort Peck Reservation.  Rodriguez spent her time at Fort Peck speaking to a crowd that was noticeably smaller and quieter than the crowds that typically attended her gatherings. Rodriguez powered through her speech while mentally reciting a personal mantra, “if I embarrass myself then I just laugh and I’m hopefully making other people laugh.”  Following her presentation, Rodriguez was approached  by the local college’s student services representative. The representative  spoke to her enthusiastically, “you know, I’ve never heard anything like that. Your story is powerful and next time you come here I’m going to make it personal because I think that this is something that everyone should hear, regardless of if they’ve been to MSU or not.” His

A picture of the Fort peck Reservation sign

Fort Peck Reservation Sign

feedback is still the most inspirational feedback that Rodriguez says she’s received—it drives her forward.

When Rodriguez goes “to these communities they’ve just been so welcoming and happy that I’m [she’s] there. Even at Fort Belknap, a place where I [she] didn’t know anybody they were saying ‘nobody comes here, it’s nice to see you here, I’m glad you’re doing this.’”

Using her story, Rodriguez hopes to reach her audience more deeply. “If you can tell a good story, then you can communicate” Rodriguez expresses. Her mission is to inspire people from all educational backgrounds. “A lot of the people who come [to the presentations] are not former MSU students, but they know somebody—their granddaughter or their niece—who they want to return.”                                                                                                                                          

Rodriguez’s presentations are an approximate combination of eighty-twenty/personal story telling- non personal outreach. Though the exact composition of each presentation can vary, Rodriguez’s goal is always to show her audience that higher education is attainable. Using her story, Rodriguez shows her audiences that “not only can they do it, but they’ll receive help when they get here”.

During her undergraduate studies, Rodriguez focused her research on college based Native American retention rates. According to Rodriguez, “It’s hard for our students to be away from home and missing all of the things that happen within the community.” She states that sometimes, coming to Bozeman is almost the same as a foreign exchange program. Her outreach toward Montana’s reservations aims to make any feelings of alienation that might exist between future students and MSU a less intimidating obstacle. She wants future Native American students to know that they will find a family, and a home, ready and waiting when they arrive. 

Rodriguez began her outreach toward Native American Communities in Fall 2017 and will soon accept a position within a non-profit organization that focuses on telling the stories of Native American elders around America. Francesca plans to continue spreading incredible stories throughout the world. 


Making a notable difference:

The majority of Native American students face substantial financial challenges that can make returning to college unfeasible. Montana’s Native American population is economically disadvantaged, as evidenced by significantly lower household income than those in Montana households and nationally: US - $53,046; MT- $45,456; Montana Native American - $25,696 (US Census Bureau, 2010). These students are often first generation to attend college and arrive at MSU with minimal financial resources making returning to college even more challenging.  

R2L’s collaboration with the NAS Department: Francesca traveled to six tribal colleges and rural communities across Montana to share her story, one of past adversity. It is on common ground visiting with each of these communities, she has uncovered what difficulties students are facing and seeks to help by providing steps to overcome them. Francesca’s communications are focused on graduating with 4-year degrees, so they may return home and make life better in their tribal communities. Francesca raises awareness of alternative options such as online degree options, technical certificates and undergraduate degree programs that are available through MSU. To date, she has connected with five tribal communities and has provided the R2L program with 81 Native American prospects. 

It is through generous foundational support and partnerships with the The Office of Return-to-Learn that The Office of Return-to-Learn offers Native American (NA) student scholarships, develops community partnerships and advances recruitment efforts. Native American R2L Scholars are supported by a multitude of academic support teams and show improvement in both academic performance and retention rates.

 R2L Scholars, on average, experienced a  21% increase in term GPA (AY 2017-2018). 1 in 5 returning students are over  the age of 25. Since 2015, The Office of Return to Learn has helped 431 students return to school.