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 Higher education for tribal youth is a difficult sell 

By Melaney Moisan
Community College Times
May 2, 2000

The weather was gray and cloudy, but many of the more than 55 young people—mostly from Indian tribes of the Northwest—who were attending Chemeketa Community College’s third annual education and career conference recently, seemed to be enjoying the prospect of a brighter future.

They were taking courses in biology and ecology and attending seminars on treaties relating to environmental and tribal issues.
As members of the Salmon Corps—a division of the Earth Conservation Corps—tribal youth receive $4,725 scholarships for college at the end of their one-year service in the corps.

But until the Oregon college’s Northwest Center for Sustainable Resources began sponsoring conferences three years ago to help the tribal youth learn about college, careers, and the environment, very few were taking advantage of those funds.

Only about 8 to 15 percent of those who completed a year in Salmon Corps had been going on to college. The number of those who went on to some form of higher education has risen to about 20 percent since the center’s education and career conference has become part of the program.

Corps members spend their year of service working for the tribes to which they are assigned—Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, and a group in Portland unaffiliated with any particular tribe. They plant trees, fence streams, remove non-native plants, test water, and chop wood for tribal elders.

Sponsorship of the education and career conference was a natural step for the Northwest Center for Sustainable Resources to take, said Susie Kelly, the center’s director.

The center, which is funded by a National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education grant, decided to sponsor the conference because it gives young people an experience they otherwise might not have, Kelly said.

“They learn the scientific, cultural and legal aspects of natural resources management,” she said. They also learn what opportunities are available at regional colleges and receive information about future job opportunities.

The center became linked with the Salmon Corps and its work three years ago through Andy Thoms, a fish and wildlife biologist for the Bonneville Power Administration and a member of the center’s advisory committee.  Thoms knew of the work being done by Salmon Corps and of the corps’ concern that too many members were not using the scholarship money they had earned in the program.

 “We were looking for a way to help them gain life skills and direction, and to demystify the college process,” he said.

Kelly said the corps’ work restoring fish habitats in Northwest streams and “its emphasis on giving young people, mostly from area tribes, work opportunities and incentives to attend postsecondary education, made a partnership very appealing.”

Conference sponsorship also grew out of a commitment to include American Indian traditions in much of the center’s work, said Kelly. The center has recently published a report on the importance of including these traditions in the curricula of secondary and postsecondary science courses.

“If you are going to be focused on sustainable resources, it makes sense to include input from the tribes,” Kelly said. The large western tribes have major land holdings and most tribes include a Natural Resources Division, she said. “There is a historical sense that they are really stewards of the land.”

In addition to its emphasis on ecological stewardship, the annual conference also provides a  job skills seminar and a college and career fair during the week to allow corps members to meet representatives from several colleges, learn about the training they might need for specific jobs, and how to acquire the skills to get those jobs.

 “I hope the young people take away a better appreciation and understanding of our environment and are inspired to follow an interest in forest ecology, or at least further their education or expand their career goals,” Kelly said.

Jessica Roja, who had quit her job in Portland with no plans for the future when she happened to pass the Salmon Corps office, thinks that may be happening.

The conference makes the higher education needed to succeed in a career more attractive by “helping us cut through the educational jargon,” she said.
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