Elevating Student Voice at United Tribes Technical College

By Lisa Cantlon, Strong Start to Finish Advisory Board Member

The 2023 Learning Network Convening in Minneapolis, Minnesota offered many engaging, thought-provoking and motivating presentations. One of the highlights from the Learning Network Convening was the opening session. The opening session was comprised of a panel of undergraduate college students who discussed their realities, challenges, and success in their co-requisite courses. Educators have the privilege of learning from their students both in and outside of the classroom. Native American students share their culture, language, humor and diverse experiences with instructors and peers. Similar to the students who attend tribal colleges the panel members were knowledgeable, humble, and courageous. 

All three of the student panelists had diverse experiences to share in their thoughtful responses to the moderator’s questions. Two of the students are attending Fond du Lac Tribal College, a tribal college. One of the messages that resonated is that the Tribal College was an important part of their success. Having Native American students represented on the panel is also noteworthy because they are seldom the focus of research on higher education. In many cases, Native Americans are often just a footnote in the study. Tribal Colleges focus on sustaining indigenous cultures as a way to redress historical trauma, poverty, challenges with belongingness, and the limited culturally relevant content offered by traditional education systems.

There are currently 37 tribal colleges serving students in 16 states with students representing federally recognized tribes. The graduation rates of tribal college and universities (TCUs) have been shown to be higher than those of two-year public institutions, indicating the value these institutions bring to Native American higher education. TCUs have been in existence for over 50 years and the impetus behind their development was the lack of success of Native students attending mainstream colleges. They were established to address the concern over Native American students’ persistence in traditional institutions and unmet needs. TCUs were one of the highlights of the self-determination period in Native American history. The mission of TCUs is to assist with the cultural priorities of the people they serve. Over 160,000 Native American and Native Alaskan students attend TCUs. 

Most of the tribal colleges are located on reservations and their charters are directed by the tribes, However, there are tribal colleges which are located in urban areas and serve multiple tribes. The students who attend United Tribes Technical College come from different tribes in the United States and Canada. The classes utilize culturally relevant curriculum and instructional practices. The students are experts in their own culture. The students in the math class work on the use math to design star quilts and do presentations on significant numbers in their culture. TCUs are connected through the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. One of the advantages of TCUs is that they help to preserve the culture and traditions of the tribes and students attending. Students identify a sense of belonging as one of the crucial factors to success and TCUs allow the students to stay close to home. This factor allows students support from family and support for the significance of culture, family, and spirituality. At the center of many TCUs is offering culturally relevant curriculum and teaching strategies to ensure that Native American knowledge is the core of the institution’s mission and values. 

The student voice and student engagement in all aspects of their educational experience is indispensable, which was supported through the presentations at the 2023 Learning Network Convening. The student panelists provided input on the presentations they attended. Each of the students had a different perception of their accomplishments and the factors that contributed to their success. One of the challenges is defining academic success when the constituents in higher education have varying definitions of academic success.  

An example of how students are heard is through the definition of success at United Tribes Technical College. The student success statement was derived through student interviews. Student success at UTTC extends beyond academic achievement to leadership development. Successful student leaders develop positive campus community relationships and display strong work habits, confidence, resilience, and belief in self. UTTC students identified this definition of student success for cultural, educated, and healthy leaders. Student leaders perceive themselves as contributing members of the campus community. They are prepared to learn, regularly attend class, complete assignments on time, and demonstrate other positive work habits that contribute to achieving career pathway goals. Student leaders are confident and able to work through life challenges by effective planning and prioritizing. They believe in their ability to accomplish demanding tasks and that with effort, their ability can grow.  

Including students in all aspects of higher education is important in ensuring equity for all students and will contribute to student success. The importance of having students at the table was evident at the Learning Network Convening. Students who are heard and understand how to reach their goals are able to persevere when faced with obstacles. These students therefore show greater levels of persistence allowing them to achieve their academic goals.  

Tribal colleges can serve as cultural preservation agents. Given the importance of culture in Native American society; tribal colleges are in a unique position to positively impact persistence. TCUs reinforce the core cultural values and support students in their role as tribal citizens. They are a connection for the student to their cultural identity. TCUs are a place where students can achieve their academic goals and stay connected to their culture. By hearing student experiences at the Learning Network Convening, it’s evident that student voice is an important consideration at TCUs. Including student voices is an essential factor in programming and decision-making in higher education.