Utah University gives American Indians a chance to learn

Frank Talker is headed for law school. The odds were against that once. He is a Navajo Indian from Inscription House, Ariz., in the middle of nowhere. "It's not much," he says.

But Frank Talker enrolled in Brigham Young University's Indian Education Program (IEP), a progressive education department that made the transition from a desolate life in the desert to a large university much easier.

"If I had been left alone on my own," Frank says, notes piled high around him in a study room here. "I would have had to quit. They're constantly trying to see how I'm doing. Other departments don't do that -- they just leave you hanging."

Most American Indians who seek higher education are left hanging. Nationally , just 12 percent survive four years of college. At BYU, 29 percent persist. By next year, school officials say, IEP students will match the performance of all entering freshmen in the country today: 42 percent, they predict, will graduate.

The 600 students in the IEP -- the largest group anywhere in the country -- have begun higher education with severe cultural handicaps.

High-school education on reservations is poor. Familiarity with English is only conversational, at best. Textbooks strain their vocabulary. Cities -- even small ones -- can be scary. Families often pressure students to return home. And students are not trained to ask for help. In general, it is another world.

"They may not say it, but they are sitting in a class full of non-Indians, and it reinforces the idea that 'I'm a dumb Indian,'" says Robert Westover, coordinator of personal services for the IEP. "It's quite an adjustment."

The IEP eases the transition through small classes, skilled teachers hired specifically for Indian students, constant communication with the student, and a teaching approach that acknowledges the Indians' special skills.

"We have found that Indians are good problem-solvers, but are not great at listening to lectures," says John Maestas, the director of multicultural education at the university. "In a class of 500 learning math on closed-circuit television, the Indian does not excel. He's overwhelmed."

In its place is a teaching approach that broaches concepts through problems and team competition. Indian students are never pitted against each other in academics.

"The philosophy among Indians," Frank Talker says, "is that if you try to get better than another person, others will pull you down. In class, one person won't try to outdo another."

The IEP classes, which handle the students as they complete their general education requirement -- and only a limited basis after they select a major -- include half non-Indian students, who prefer the different teaching style. "Non-Indians donht want to leave," Mr. Maestas says. But mixing with non-Indian students smooths the adjustment to the larger university system and helps with the team competition concept.

Othe schools -- most notably Northeastern Oklahoma University, the University of New Mexico, and Arizona State -- include Indian education programs, but they have not matched the success rate at BYU, which includes one startling item: Each Indian who graduates has a job waiting.

And BYU annually commits $600,000 in scholarships for Indians students, more than all other universities and colleges combined, according to Mr. Maestas.

While BYU is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, IEP administrators say the main goal is simply to establish a first-class higher education center for Indians and is not designed with the aim of teaching religious values. Some 85 percent of the Indians students are Mormons who have been contacted through missionary work by the church.

With the success of IEP, chairman Con Osborne says, "The word is out" among Indians. A keen competition is under way with other schools to attract students.

One of the IEP's prime objectives, Mr. Maestas says, is to educate Indians who will return to the reservations and improve standards of learning there.

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