LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Following the December graduation ceremony at New Mexico State University, a group of Native American students posed for photos in caps, gowns and traditional tribal regalia. In a sea of new graduates in black robes outside the Pan American Center, the feathered Pendleton stoles over their shoulders identified them as Natives.
Among them was Aileen Cruz, the winner of NMSU’s outstanding senior award for her involvement in the university’s American Indian Program.
Earlier, Cruz had beamed as she walked across the stage to collect her degree in small business management and entrepreneurship. Her road to graduation wasn’t easy. She earned a 3.94 grade point average, but it took late-night study sessions and some all-nighters, she said.
She also wrestled with what she called “culture shock.” Moving to Las Cruces from Okhay Owingeh Pueblo — her home in northern New Mexico, where she’d been taught her language and heritage — had her considering transferring to a community college closer to home, she said.
But in NMSU’s American Indian Program, Cruz found a supportive community that helped her adjust and persist — something experts say is key to helping Native students finish college. A sense of duty after the 2007 death of her cousin, Irwin Wright, also motivated her. The two had hoped to attend college together.
At NMSU, Cruz is the exception, not the norm. Fewer than 1 in 4 Native American students who started school in the fall of 2007 earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, the period experts use to calculate graduation rates.
That puts NMSU on par with the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, but well behind the national graduation rate of 39 percent from four-year colleges for Native students. It also puts Native American students at NMSU behind others at the university, which had an overall graduation rate of 43 percent for students who started in the fall 2007 and graduated by summer 2013.
Poverty is among the challenges many Native Americans face in college. They have the highest poverty rate of any group nationally, according to 2013 census figures.
Because family income and higher education often go hand-in-hand, many Native Americans who make it to college are the first in their families to attend. It also is the first time many Native Americans, particularly those who grew up on reservations, venture away from home. Many come from tight-knit communities where friends are also family members. When they go away to college, they know few people.
For many Native Americans, the experience can be like traveling to a foreign country. While city and suburb dwellers don’t think twice about multistory buildings with stairs and elevators, some students from isolated villages back home may be used to unpaved and unnamed streets.
Making sure Native students find supportive communities is key to helping them graduate, said Christina Chavez Kelley, NMSU’s assistant vice president for student diversity.
To help students adjust, NMSU has poured resources into developing its American Indian Program and constructing a building to house it. Those efforts helped Cruz find the support she needed.
She met up with 15 other Native students who had attended Santa Fe Indian School. She found help in a peer mentor program for Native students. She participated in and helped lead other student-run Native American groups.
Others, like Emily Juchniewicz, who is half Navajo and half Polish, find community elsewhere.
Juchniewicz found a home in ROTC after trying AIP, where she felt her peer mentor was only interested in a paycheck.
In May 2013, she graduated from NMSU’s ROTC program, the first Native American woman to accomplish that feat.
Helping keep Native American students on track to graduate is a continual learning process, Kelley said. Retention and recruitment efforts are important, but they come and go. Because some students do well without the help of such programs while others don’t, it’s difficult to find the most effective ways to raise the Native student graduation rate, she said.
While NMSU has programs and groups tailored to Native students, Kelley said she knows NMSU falls short.
“I don’t know the secret formula for everybody,” she said.
Nationally, most Native Americans — 3 out of 4 — emerge from high school with diplomas, said Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association.
Of those who continue their education, however, only 4 in 10 graduate from four-year colleges and universities.
The 39 percent college graduation rate for Native Americans is 20 percentage points lower than the average for students from all demographic groups, Rose said.
“They have so many other challenges before they walk in that door than all other students,” Rose said. “Our kids, they get lost. It’s a success if they even try to go to college.”
In addition to challenges like poverty, Donald Pepion says many Native students struggle with what he calls a “cultural value conflict.”
Native people come from cultures that value groups — the family, the tribe — above the individual, said Pepion, an NMSU anthropology professor and facilitator for the university’s American Indian Studies minor and a member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe in Montana.
“In overall society, individualism is really important,” Pepion said. “In our roots, as a people, was that the self was not as important as the family; maybe it’s not as important as the tribe.”
The broader cultural value of individualism can make college feel even more foreign. Many Native students often feel lonely because they can’t walk down the street to visit grandma or spend time with their aunts, uncles and cousins.
Then there’s history: the centuries of war, disease, colonization, forced assimilation and discrimination that Native people carry with them today, Pepion said.
Native Americans also hear their problems are “your own damn fault. It’s because you Indians are all alcoholic and you don’t want to work and you create your own situation and you expect the government to bail you out.”
Such thinking, he said, makes the people feel worthless.
“In the face of all that, we’re still here,” Pepion said. “I think (Native Americans) are some of the most resilient people in the world.”
Cruz knows something about resiliency.
She was close to her cousin, Irwin Wright. The two pledged to appear on the MTV reality show “Road Rules” together one day, she said. They also planned to attend college together.
But, like some people from their pueblo who turn to drugs, alcohol and gangs, Wright fell into a world of negativity and hurt, Cruz said. In 2007, he took his own life.
“I felt like part of me didn’t want to go on either. He’s not living this constant pain anymore,” she said. “Later on, I felt OK about knowing that in some way or another he’s still here.”
During Cruz’s four years at NMSU, she was involved in several student groups through the American Indian Program. She also held the Miss Native American NMSU crown for a year and served as president of the Native American Business Student Association.
“When she mentioned (AIP) to me, I knew she would have a home away from home. I felt good. I felt at ease,” Cruz’s mother, Vanesa Cruz, said through tears of joy at the December graduation.
NMSU has made a significant investment in recent years with the construction of the $3.5 million building to house AIP and related student groups. Next to NMSU’s student union building, the American Indian Student Center gives Native American students a place to study, hold meetings and socialize.
The center was built with state money following a decade of planning and collaboration among politicians, the university and New Mexico tribal leaders.
In addition to the peer mentor program, AIP offers advising, scholarship opportunities, employer recruitment visits and referrals to other campus resources, AIP Director Justin McHorse said in an email.
But, while NMSU works to help Native students feel at home and build friendships, it’s also important for them to be comfortable on their own, McHorse said.
“The ability to find comfort in solitude comes in handy when students prioritize their academic responsibilities over their social interests,” McHorse said.
Juchniewicz learned this lesson early at NMSU. With Native Americans making up just 3.7 percent of the student body, according to 2012 statistics, Juchniewicz says she was often the only Native student in class.
But NMSU wasn’t as much a culture shock for her as others. Juchniewicz lived in Germany for three years as a child and attended grade school in Rio Rancho, the state’s third-largest city.
“I think being in Germany, and moving around, and my mom in the military, allowed me to adapt easier,” she said.
At NMSU, Juchniewicz befriended a bubbly Pueblo student named Ben, who was a couple of years older. He showed her the ropes, helped her find her classes and navigate the campus. He introduced her to a lot of people and invited her to join a Brazilian martial arts group. Later, she joined NMSU’s ROTC program along with a Navajo friend from Crownpoint. ROTC turned out to be a turning point that set her life in motion.
While her friend from Crownpoint dropped out of ROTC, Juchniewicz stuck with it. She met her future husband, Jeremy Armijo, there and the two married in December. They now live in Alaska with their new puppy.
NMSU touted Juchniewicz’s status as the first Native American woman to finish the ROTC program last year.
“Cadet Juchniewicz has opened the door wide, not only for herself, but her family, tribe, Native Americans and females,” Lt. Col. Andrew Taylor, professor of military science, said in a news release.
Juchniewicz said she has worked to further her education so she can help her small community at Tohajiilee, west of Albuquerque.
“I want to do so much every time I go home. There’s always something I want to fix and something I want to change and improve,” she said.
‘Home away from home’
As NMSU alumni, Donnie and Renee Begay know the struggles of being Native students in a faraway city.
“I could really just remember how lonely it was,” Renee Begay said at her dining room table during a recent interview. On the reservation, she said, most friends were cousins and other family members.
Though the Begays were high school sweethearts and married as sophomores in college, it was still difficult.
“We get dropped off on the campus and we’re supposed to know how to make friends, and we really don’t know how,” Renee Begay said. “So I think the first semester was really rough on us because we didn’t really know how to engage ourselves into the campus community and we were lonely a lot.”
After they graduated, the two started Nations, a Christian group for Native American students, in 2002. Through its parent organization Cru — formerly Campus Crusade for Christ — Nations has spread to several other campuses around the nation.
It was their involvement in Cru as students that inspired Renee Begay, who is Zuni, and Donnie Begay, who is Navajo, to start Nations. The group seeks to help Native students find community, succeed in college and aid them in their spiritual journey, Renee Begay said.
Every Thursday evening during the school year, more than a dozen Native students crowd the Begays’ house for a home-cooked meal, energetic conversation, games and social time. It’s their “home away from home,” Renee Begay said.
Sometimes dinner is Spam and potatoes with fresh tortillas, a favorite in the Native community. Other times a student will cook meals like chicken Alfredo.
It’s loud during Nations meetings. The Begays’ two young daughters, Natalia and Kaya, aren’t shy and ask the students to play or color with them.
After dinner, everyone gathers in the living room for a group activity or game; or, sometimes, someone poses a question to the group that starts a conversation about personal experiences, faith or how students are doing in school.
“Our Native students that are in college are probably the most influential for the rest of our communities,” Renee Begay said. “I feel it’s really crucial that they have support and go forth in that.”
‘Beat the odds’
Seeing Native students graduate is a wonderful feeling, said NMSU’s Kelley. She said she loves to photograph and congratulate graduates outside the Pan American Center.
“I am blessed to be part of these momentous successes, especially if I have known the student since they were freshman and have seen them struggle, have seen them stress and have seen them beat the odds,” she said in an email.
In graduating, Cruz was one of those students.
“If I didn’t have a sense of community here, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable here, I wouldn’t have been myself, and I wouldn’t be able to thrive,” Cruz said.
Cruz plans to attend New Mexico Highlands University for a master’s degree in business, then return to NMSU to pursue a doctorate, she said. Currently, she is an accountant for Tsay Corp., a construction business owned by the Okhay Owingeh pueblo.
But that was all in the future as she crossed the stage to collect her diploma. After the ceremony, Cruz met her family outside the Pan American Center. During a long hug, her mother whispered quiet praises in her ear through sobs.
Decorating Cruz’s black graduation cap were photos of Wright and other deceased relatives. “My Angels,” read an inscription on the cap.
“He was one of the main reasons why I wanted to go and get a degree,” Cruz said of her cousin.
After posing with family members for photos, Cruz hugged her best friend, Simone Crum, an African American woman from Albuquerque. Then she joined a handful of fellow Native graduates to capture the moment in photographs.
Student life: A number of groups at NMSU aim to help Native American students find community and academic success. Here are photos from a few of their activities: