AKA the Liz Warren recruitment drive.
Elijah Watson knows he wants to go to college. He also knows that it will be difficult to leave home on the Navajo reservation if he does.
The 17-year-old was reminded of the tough decision he’ll face next year when he participated in a weeklong celebration in March of his cousin’s Kinaalda, a hallowed Navajo ceremony marking a girl’s transition into womanhood.
“I’m afraid because it’s really hard to leave my family,” he said, noting that college would mean he’d be away from taking part in the same rite for his little sister and participating in other important tribal ceremonies.
To reach students like Watson with higher education aspirations, a growing number of universities are offering programs to recruit and prepare Native American students for a transition to college life that can bring on a wrenching emotional conflict as they straddle two worlds.
Missing culture, family
Many young Native Americans find themselves divided by their desire for a higher education and the drive to stay close to home to hold onto a critical part of their identity. Sometimes, families discourage children from pursuing college, fearing once they leave the reservation they won’t come back.
That was the case with Watson’s mother — his grandmother encouraged her to stay home and carry on the family tradition of pottery-making.
“These students could be in a classroom with hundreds of kids and no one will be like them, so it’s really good for these programs to pull all of these kids together,” said Ahniwake Rose, the director of the National Indian Education Association.
“Moving to college for these kids is taking them so far away from their homes. On top of that, we still have so many first-generation students and their parents can’t give them any idea of what college is like,” Rose said.
Dozens have implemented mini-college boot camps, including the University of California, Los Angeles, Yale and Duke.
Last week, Watson found himself at the University of California, Riverside, where he was joined by other students, including some as young as 12.