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Native Pathways to Success Helps Students Start School on Solid Footing

October 7, 2010 -- By Amy Stix

College Office

Walking onto a campus of 13,000 new faces for the first time can be intimidating for any freshman, but particularly for those incoming students who must travel far from family, friends and cultural ties. That’s one reason that in August 2010, the Department of Native American Studies initiated “Native Pathways to Success,” a targeted orientation program focusing on entering American Indian/Alaska Native freshmen. 

According to NAS Student Advisor, Jim Burns, who coordinated and led the Native Pathways to Success orientation, the program “was a great success.”  Twenty-seven Native freshmen participated in the two-day orientation, as did seven families of incoming Native students. Burns noted that the program “came with great support from Dean Paula Lutz.”

He also stressed that the new orientation for Native students was not designed to replace MSU’s orientation for all incoming freshmen. Rather, Native Pathways to Success, which occurred just prior to the all-student school introduction, “was a supplement” program, geared “to have a more focused effort on reaching out to Native students.”

Burns said that for many Native American students, “There is such a strong connection with family and extended family. It’s such a fabric of their life.” Leaving those connections behind, especially for a young person who may be the only member of his or her tribe at MSU, “can be very intimidating.” 

Thus one of the goals of Native Pathways to Success was to “give (Native) students time at the university before the rush,” said Burns and make them aware that “they’re not in it alone. There are a lot of people on this campus that care about them.”

That message of care and support came from a variety of MSU faculty, staff and students. Incoming freshmen and their families, who traveled from across Montana, and states including Colorado, Washington, New Mexico and Maryland, not only toured the campus and student housing arrangements, but also learned about MSU’s career services, financial aid and budgeting tools, extracurricular activities and student groups, as well as time management and study skills. After an opening prayer by Dr. David Yarlott, president of Little Big Horn College, MSU President, Waded Cruzado, welcomed incoming freshmen. They later heard from a panel of upper classmen Native students, who shared their own experiences and insights on adjusting to student life at MSU, through what Burns called an “open conversation” about the transition from high school to college.

Perhaps most important, incoming Native students were provided the opportunity to meet one another in a social setting, which helped ease feelings of intimidation and loneliness in new surroundings. Current students joined freshmen and MSU staff for a barbecue, campfire and “sharing circle” at Langhor campground, followed by a sunrise hike the following morning up to the “M”.

“The most important thing they take away is connecting to a community,” said Sheree Watson, who oversees MSU’s “Designing our Community” program, which recruits and retains Native American students in the College of Engineering. Watson, who assisted Jim Burns with coordination of Native Pathways to Success, noted that focused orientation programs are “the hook to the retention program.  It just really works.” Students are much more likely to graduate – and thrive – if they know from the start of their college careers that they have people on campus whom they can count on for compassionate guidance, support and friendship.

Freshman Thomas Law would probably agree with that. Law, who belongs to the Fort Peck Assiniboine tribe, moved from Maryland to attend MSU. The civil engineering student and his parents came across the country together to participate in the Native Pathways to Success orientation. 

“It was nice to meet people who were not only in my situation, but were from my background,” Law said. “It was definitely better having it (Native Pathways) to start off the year.” He added that, “It was key in my parents sort of approving and seeing that everything was OK.”

Native Pathways to Success was, in part, focused on parents. Over the course of the program, “We had separate meetings with parents,” said Jim Burns. “It’s that face-to-face time that is so important,” he added, allowing parents to see that, “Their children will be well taken care of, both academically and emotionally.”

In fact, though student response to Native Pathways to Success was very positive, some of the highest accolades came from parents. One parent from New Mexico noted on an evaluation, “Your energy, generosity and support made us so happy we chose MSU.” 

Another parent wrote, “I think if I had support like this, I would have finished school.”

That one statement encapsulates the motivation behind Native Pathways to Success, and why Jim Burns and his colleagues look forward to repeating the orientation next year. 

Updated: 04/15/2011