PSU, NAYA collaboration seeks to advance Native student success

Instructor and students pulling weeds from garden
Students in “Indigenous Gardens and Food Justice” class work in the NAYA herb garden (Angelo Baca)

At Portland State, Native Americans make up just 1% of the student body, and the successful recruitment, retention and graduation of first-year Native students lags behind other groups on campus. In a new initiative, PSU will seek to improve the outcomes and experiences for Native students with the help of a $75,000 grant from Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC).

The grant is part of a larger effort by HECC to help eliminate disparities in postsecondary education success rates between Oregon's overall student population and Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latinix, Native American/Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders learners.

PSU's Indigenous Nations Studies department, in collaboration with the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health and the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), will take a multi-faceted approach with the goal of increasing successful student recruitment by 30%, increasing the first-year retention of freshmen from 57.7% to 76%, and increasing the first-year retention of transfer students from 76.1% to 85%.

"They recognized and we recognized it was an important opportunity to reach out to our next generation of Indigenous youth in the Portland metro area and support them transitioning from high school to college and support their needs when they arrive in college," said Judy Bluehorse Skelton, an assistant professor of Indigenous Nations Studies.

Tamara Henderson, director of youth and education services at NAYA, said it starts with students envisioning themselves as college bound and being exposed to potential careers. 

Bluehorse Skelton will lead students from NAYA's alternative high school, Many Nations Academy, through a series of in-person and Zoom workshops focused on Indigenous Traditional Ecological and Cultural Knowledge (ITECK), a body of knowledge, practices and beliefs acquired over time about the relationship of living beings (human and non-human) with one another and with the environment. Bluehorse Skelton centers ITECK in her classes and in her work with government agencies to restore and reclaim wetlands, savannahs, and forests in the Portland metro region — and these workshops provide NAYA students with that same hands-on experience. 

"Folks don't necessarily think that these courses, opportunities and experiences in the field with Native community members, tribes and other partners are available in higher ed," she said.

Students can be exposed to career paths they may not have otherwise discovered, including positions with local and federal agencies and organizations that integrate Indigenous science and ecological knowledge into land management activities. "These are careers that we're developing within a number of agencies and organizations."

During the workshops, two PSU students will also serve as peer mentors, sharing their own stories, academic journeys and career motivations. 

"They listen to their peers," Henderson said. "These are Native students who look like them and have had similar experiences as they and their families have had. They can show them that higher ed is possible."

In much the same way that ITECK requires an intimate and long-term commitment to the land, the project partners are committed to building out a strong, long-term relationship and pathway for Native youth to come and thrive at PSU.

Working with admissions, the partners will support campus welcome and orientation events for Native students and their families to connect them with culturally relevant campus and community resources as well as mark and celebrate their transition into college.

To help create a more welcoming campus climate, the partners will develop an onboarding training for nearly 200 graduate assistants in PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — and ultimately, for all university employees — that promotes decolonization and anti-racism. The training will provide lessons in relevant Pacific Northwest history, confronting implicit bias and developing inclusive curricula that counters settler colonial logic and de-centers whiteness.

"When we take an Indigenous approach to projects, whether it's education or healthcare, it's for the benefit of all of our relations," Bluehorse Skelton said.

The other partners include Kelly Gonzalez, an associate professor of community health in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health; Ted Van Alst, chair of Indigenous Nations Studies and director of the School of Gender, Race and Nations; Suzanne Estes, associate professor of biology and interim associate dean of research and undergraduate engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Todd Rosenstiel, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.