By Cynthia Hubert
As a Native American, Megan Walker knows that she would be part of a tiny minority on most college campuses.
But after completing a special residential program this summer at Sacramento State, she said, the prospect of pursuing a higher education seems less daunting and isolating.
Megan, 15, who is affiliated with the Chukchansi tribe and lives in Santa Rosa, was one of 20 Native American high school students who in June took part in the annual American Indian Summer Institute based at Sac State.
Every year, the University welcomes a small group of Native American teenagers to campus, where for five days they are immersed in activities designed to impart leadership and academic skills and help prepare them for college life. Participants receive meals and housing and tour Sac State, a community college and a University of California campus. They also learn about native culture, play sports and explore nature and the outdoors.
The institute is one of the University-sponsored summer programs that welcome to campus members of underserved populations, said Chao Vang of the University’s Student Academic Success & Educational Equity Programs (SASEEP). Others include the Migrant Student Leadership Institute and the MLK Leadership Institute. The programs are part of Sac State’s efforts to cultivate diversity and inclusivity and make higher education accessible to students of all backgrounds and cultures, Vang said.
“Our main goal is to get them ready for college,” said Jose Mejia, who helped coordinate the summer program for Native Americans. “I’d like all 20 of students who participated this year to go to college after they finish high school.”
Mejia said he also wants more native students at Sac State and other universities.
Native Americans are scarce on college campuses across the country. Less than 1 percent of Sac State’s students identify as Native American, and the same is true of the University’s faculty, said Mejia.
Only about 10 percent of Native American college students earn bachelor’s degrees, compared to about 54 percent of white students, statistics show.
Many native students, especially those who live on reservations, have few academic role models, Mejia said. Some are under pressure to remain in their communities to assist their elders rather than pursue higher education. Native Americans also are less likely to attend high schools that offer access to Advanced Placement and college preparatory courses.
“They tend to feel that there is no place for them on college campuses,” Mejia said. “We want to try to change that perception.” Sac State has counseling, advisory and financial services to help native students succeed, he said.
“We want them to know that we understand the pressures but that we are inclusive, and if you have dreams of going to college, we are going to give you the resources to make that happen.”
Programs such as the American Indian Summer Institute “are paramount” to native student success, said Marcellene Watson-Derbigny, associate vice president for Student Retention and Academic Success at Sac State. “They enable students to learn about their culture while flourishing academically through exposure to various fields of study and the higher education setting.”
Megan Walker said her background differs from those of many native students. Both of her parents attended college and encouraged her and her siblings to do so. Her sister Kayly participated in the Sac State summer program and urged Megan to do the same. Kayly currently attends junior college.
The Sac State program broadened Megan’s knowledge about her native culture and prompted her to think seriously about college and areas of study, she said.
She and other participants in this summer’s institute learned how to sharpen their note-taking skills, participated in workshops on chemistry and drone technology, and learned about groundwater filtration and various technology fields. They bowled, played basketball and went whitewater rafting in between tours of Sac State, UC Davis and American River College.
During trips to Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge south of Sacramento and Camp Lotus along the south fork of the American River, they learned about wetlands and conservation projects, and received information about native lands, wildlife and plants.
“I think a lot about how my cultural background affects me and my life,” Megan said. “I don’t participate in Native American dancing, but I have done some weaving. I like to think about the culture, and I want to learn my native language.”
The institute ramped up her enthusiasm for those things, as well as for obtaining a college degree.
“It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot,” she said. “I was able to see different campuses, and I met people at college who could be my peers and my teachers. It gave me even more motivation to pursue it.”