A year ago in the midst of her senior year of high school, Amia Roach-Valandra was working on her college applications from her home on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. In her essay, she wrote about moving her older brothers into their college dorms when she was 12:
“When they came back after the first semester, they were discouraged. They explained to me how hard college was and that it was nothing like school at home. From that point on, I made a goal for myself: to not quit when it came to going to college. …I have always wanted to go off the reservation and explore the world. There is so much more out there than a small town in South Dakota, and I want to discover it.”
Now, Amia, who is Sičangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux), has just finished her first-year at the University of Southern California. She missed home more than she thought she would, and she’s not the only one. In the middle of the fall semester, her twin brother, Ashaun Roach-Valandra, who is attending school in South Dakota as a collegiate basketball player, texted her.
“He told me that he missed me,” she said. “That never happens, so I think he’s getting a little homesick too.”
Historically, Native students have been less likely to go to college than their peers of other racial groups and the pandemic further increased that disparity. There were almost 19 percent fewer first-year Native students enrolled in college in fall 2021 than in fall 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Here are interviews with three Native college students, including Amia, on how they’ve been able to get in and make it through college.
These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
‘Don’t be discouraged if you fail at first’
Amia Roach-Valandra, an 18-year-old member of the Sičangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe, is from the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. She just finished her first year as a health and human sciences major at the University of Southern California with the goal of eventually becoming a pediatrician. She’s also recently been elected as the secretary of the executive board of the Native American Student Assembly for 2022-2023.
In my college essay, I wrote about growing up on the reservation, how you don’t really see many students going off to college. And I wanted to set that example for Native youth, just for them to have someone that actually made it out and got a degree and was able to come back and help the community.
It’s really difficult coming from the reservation and going to kind of a prestigious school. You have to teach yourself how to do assignments. I never did a research paper with primary sources before. So I had to teach myself how to do that. I’ve never worked on a lab report before. So I had to teach myself how to do that. And studying for tests was something that I wasn’t really taught in high school either. So it’s just a whole lot of learning and kind of adjusting.
There’s also a lot of failure, which is something not a lot of people talk about. It’s hard for me because as a student in high school, I was a straight A student. I was talking to my older friends and asking them if this is normal that I’m not really passing my tests or anything. They’re like, ‘That happens to everyone.’
Many Native students get to the point where they’re like, ‘I’m not doing well so I’m going to go back home on the reservation.’ I would just say don’t be discouraged if you fail at first. It helps you grow and helps you learn.
If you’re going to college, know you’re doing it for yourself as well as your community. People will look up to you to spark inspiration in others. It takes all of us as a generation, as a collective, to kind of flip that stereotype of Natives not being educated.
‘For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by Native people’
Clara Mooney, who is Haida and Blackfeet, is an 18-year-old urban Native from Seattle. She’s majoring in environmental science with a minor in Native studies at Stanford University.
Going into Stanford, I was most surprised by the sheer size of the Native community. I have always gone to predominantly white schools with only one or two Native students, and given the percentage of Indigenous students who end up in higher education, I was not optimistic of an institution like Stanford. So when I got my first email about housing, I was shocked to learn that Stanford has a house dedicated to Native students.
Arriving at Stanford a week early I was warmly welcomed by a group of upperclassmen Native students living in Muwekma (Stanford’s Native dorm is named after the tribe whose land it inhabits, the Muwekma Ohlone). For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by Native people. I met people from tribes I had never heard of. I met people from my tribe and from neighboring tribes. I met people living on the reservation and urban Natives.
Outside of the staff and students in the Native community, the university does the bare minimum for Native students. Despite surveys showing that Native Americans and Indigenous people at Stanford receive some of the highest accounts of racism at the school, Stanford does little to combat…racism. While historically Columbus Day has been a day off for the school, Indigenous People’s Day is not. So the 100-plus students who went to the traditional Sunrise Ceremony [on Alcatraz] on Indigenous People’s Day were left to go to class tired or miss school completely.
A year ago, I wish I would have known to be my authentic self in my application. For Native students, I would further like to stress being yourself. Colleges are looking for passion, and if you’re passionate about your heritage and are actively involved in the community, they will notice. This goes especially for urban Natives. As an urban Native, I have always been distanced from heritage and it was something I actively had to seek out, and even though much of it was not with my tribe, being broadly connected to a Native community was very fulfilling.
‘I want to be the person that I needed’
Tadraschell Murray, 32, started college at Idaho State University (ISU) in 2009, and then dropped out after a few semesters. Now more than a decade out of school, she’s back and studying family and consumer science part-time at Idaho State University in southern Idaho. As the Indian Education Family Liaison at Blackfoot High School, she navigates higher education together with her students. Murray is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe.
Life happened, I got scared and I stopped college. Then I was at my job at the tribal recreation center for 10 years and I never went back to school. I always wanted to, but I just didn’t have the time. And then I got COVID in September 2021, and I got pretty sick. That kind of made me realize I’m not doing anything.
When I got better I decided I need to help myself so I can help the kids and I can give back to my community. Because I was finding times when kids would ask me stuff, and I didn’t know the answer. There are certain things you can’t just learn through life.
At the same time that I went back to ISU, I had a job offer from the school that I went to, Blackfoot High School. Some of the teachers that were my teachers are still here. Honestly, when I walked into the high school, I was like, ‘These kids are probably not going to listen to me.’ I had always worked with little kids or elementary schoolers. But I can’t see myself working with anybody else now.
I’m going to school, taking three classes, it’s all online. I just struggle with being able to ask questions, because sometimes I don’t know if what I’m doing is actually right. I’m also still working part time at my old job with the recreation department, I work nights there.
The other day someone’s like, ‘How do you do it?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, I just do it.’ Because at the high school, I’m here telling these kids ‘Come to class’, ‘Turn in your homework.’ But they’re like, ‘What did you get a degree in?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m working on it right with you.’
Last year was the first experience I had with my seniors. We were finding things out together. We registered for college classes together. I went through just learning how to do that for myself, and then coming back and telling them the steps.
I want to be the person that I needed. I would have liked somebody to check in on me, ‘Do you need help with knowing who to contact about this question?’ The simple stuff that’s kind of not thought about. I needed the help and I didn’t have it, but now I hopefully can help them.
I relate to my high school kids on so many levels, through growing up and going through hardships and successes. I want them to know that if I can get a degree, even at the age that I am, it’s never too late, even if they don’t want to do it now.
This project was supported by a fellowship from the Education Writers Association.