Cindy Ann Dell
Montana State University-Billings
The problem addressed in this study concerned low persistence levels among American Indian college students.† This problem exists on both a national and local level.† One-fifth of the American Indian students who transfer to Montana University (MU) from Montana tribal colleges do not persist beyond the first semester.
To better understand persistence factors among American Indian Students at MU, a qualitative study was conducted.† During the fall semester, 1999, seven American Indian students who transferred to Montana University from a Montana Tribal College were contacted and interviewed.† A series of five formal interviews were conducted at predetermined times during the semester.
There are important findings as a result of this study.† These findings include (1) the role of personal determination in persistence among these American Indian college students, (2) variability in their grade point averages from high school to tribal college to university, (3) the importance of adopting effective learning skills, (4) the effects of environmental pull, (5) the role of the American Indian extended family, and (6) the diminished importance of social integration.† Consistent with Beanís research is that persistence is an interactional process that takes place over time.
††††††††††† All of the participants experienced some degree of hardship their first semester after transfer.† Despite the difficulties with finances, academic difficulty, family problems, travel, racism, and social isolation, they all persisted.† Personal determination, or the strong desire to complete their education, was evident in all of the statements.† Most students explained that they wanted to make life better for their families, which was the driving force behind their determination.†
Changes in Grade Point Averages
††††††††††† A pattern of variation in grade point average was found among all of the participants.† Grade point averages consistently increased from high school GPAs when students attended the Tribal College, and then dropped again after transfer to the MU.† High school grade point averages were more reflective of first semester term at MU than the Tribal College grade point averages.
††††††††††† A compelling finding from this study is the importance of acquiring effective learning skills, specifically effective study strategies and processing skills.† Academically integrated students learned to read for meaning, used background experience to assimilate new knowledge, and learned how to utilize study guides that encouraged organization and elaboration of new material.† It appears that if a student acquires more effective learning skills, they are more likely to academically integrate.
Another important finding was the impact of environmental pull.† This component not only affected academic and social integration, but also appeared to directly influence attitudinal development, especially in the form of stress.
For this group, family was not only a source of environmental pull, but also a source of support, motivation, and attitudinal development.† Participants received both emotional and material support from members of their extended families.† Attitudes were also influenced by family members, especially in the form of their value for an education.† Extended family members who had earned bachelors, masters or doctorate degrees were the most influential members of the family, and appeared to contribute to studentsí personal determination.†
Social integration did not seem to be important to this group.† Six of seven participants were nontraditional students, only one of whom was considered socially integrated.† Theresa, the only traditional student, was also considered to be socially integrated.† This is consistent with the literature revealing that social integration is less important for nontraditional students†† Families were important sources of support, including socialization.† They did not appear to separate from their families, as is the norm in the mainstream culture but became more reliant on them.† It appeared that immediate and extended families took the place of friends on campus for five of the seven participants.
There are important lessons to be learned from this study.† Most prominent of which appear to be related to acquisition of learning and processing skills, importance of the American Indian family, unfounded expectations of racism, prominence of in-class activities, magnitude of life and work experience, levels of personal determination, and the possibility of adjustment phases during the first semester.†
††††††††††† For the most part, students did not come equipped with effective learning strategies when they transferred to MU.† Although the reasons are unclear, it appears that the expectations for academic achievement at the Tribal College were different than what students experienced at Montana University.† Some MU instructors provided direct instruction of learning skills, including study strategies, which encouraged more organization and elaboration, both important for deeper processing and learning. Direct instruction by faculty of such study strategies could benefit students planning to transfer from a tribal college.
††††††††††† Families, both immediate and extended, provided housing, food, money, childcare and monetary and emotional support.† Some students believed they could not survive without the assistance from their grandparents.† The development of goals, motivation, and commitment appeared to originate with the family.† The extended family was important to all of the participants in this study.
††††††††††† Many of the participants entered MU expecting to experience discrimination in the classroom.† However, most discovered that they were not singled out, but accepted by non-Indian students and instructors.† This may have promoted adjustment, as they discovered that the amount of discrimination was contrary to their expectations.
Joining a campus-sponsored group, such as American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) and American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES), was not important to these participants during their first semester at MU (although several expressed the desire to join an on-campus organization).† Because of travel requirements and families at home, there was little time for socialization outside the classroom.† However, the friendships that were formed with classmates were for some, the most salient factor for on-campus socialization, especially if there were group work and discussions occurring in class.† Instruction was also instrumental to student success, especially when it involved teaching study strategies.†
Developing relationships with faculty was also important for academic integration.† Positive interaction with others, both faculty and students, appeared to reduce the isolation of being the only Indian in class, and fostered motivation and self-confidence.†
Students who had the benefit of previous work or life experience appeared to better assimilate new information, and integrated academically.† Background knowledge enhances the learning process, and encourages deeper processing into memory.† Authentic learning experiences, from both inside the classroom and the work environment may be useful for students as they enter classes within their majors.† It allows them to refer back to knowledge they already possess and assimilate it into an existing schema.
††††††††††† Many participants faced tumultuous semesters, but all persisted in spite of the difficulties they experienced.† Personal determination has been found to be an important characteristic among American Indians who have high levels of persistence.† It appears that personal determination, based on goal setting, level of commitment and self-efficacy, contributed to these students' success, since goals are more likely to be reached if level of commitment and self-efficacy is high.
††††††††††† Students had expectations prior to entering the university.† They were fearful of the work, yet confident that they had the skills that were required to succeed.† They were also fearful of the size of the campus and the number of students that would be in the classroom.† After the first week, expectations were altered.† After attending classes for a week, participants determined that it would not be as difficult academically as they expected.† They also adjusted quickly to the size of the campus and increased numbers of fellow students.† Six weeks into the term, their grades were falling and self-confidence, for most, was faltering.†
††††††††††† A primary limitation of this study is the uniqueness of the participants and the size of the sample.† Since there were only seven students, all coming from the same institution and the time frame spanning only one semester, the results of this study cannot be generalized to any other groups.† The purpose was not to gather information to apply to another setting or group of American Indian students, but to better understand how this particular group of students experienced their first term at MU.†
††††††††††† Additionally, three male students from the Tribal College chose not to participate in the study.† Their experiences would have been useful to consider as well, especially since one failed all his classes, and two completed the semester, one with a GPA over 3.00.† It is unfortunate that these menís experiences were not included in the study.
††††††††††† Finally, the short period spent studying the participants limits the longitudinal implications and information that could be acquired.† Since the group was only followed for one semester, the results regarding institutional fit and commitment are inconclusive.† To increase understanding of their experiences, one would need to follow this group for two to four years.† Questions regarding persistence and attitudinal development cannot be fully understood without more time in the field.
††††††††††† Research on American Indian persistence is limited and contradictory.† At times, researchers do not know the correct questions to ask.† A qualitative study is often the departure point to decide what questions ought to be addressed.† The students who participated in this study shared their lives, goals and ambitions, as well their fears, misfortune and discouragement.† Through their willingness to share their experiences, a better understanding of the issues of Indian students has begun.†
A prominent finding in this study is the importance of acquiring effective study and processing skills.† Because many American Indian students are academically unprepared, it seems essential for them to learn and use effective strategies while studying.† Improved processing skills, such as reading for meaning, organization an elaboration of new information, and utilizing authentic learning settings, also appeared to be important for academic achievement.† Capitalizing on this finding by teaching new strategies and skills to Indian students could prove to be immensely beneficial.† Additional research should be conducted to determine if this is the case.††
The family is, essentially, the center of these American Indian studentsí lives.† Children, spouses, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and a multitude of other extended family members add richness, motivation, meaning, and support to their lives.† For most, creating a better existence for themselves and their family is at the center of their motivation.† An understanding of the American Indian family is crucial to understanding success as a college student.† Building on this research could lead to greater achievement for more American Indians in the future.
Personal determination was key to these studentsí persistence.† They all maintained their enrollment despite facing financial, familial, academic and personal hardship.† Exploring this construct is important to future research centering on American Indian persistence.
††††††††††† Adjustment was difficult for these students.† Most struggled; some succeeded.† Many were apprehensive about the transition.† Theresaís words capture this apprehension:
At the beginning I expected it was gonna be like, ďOh my God, Iím at a university!† And Iíll be competing against white manís world.† How in the hell am I gonna turn out?† How am I gonna be?† How is it gonna be?Ē† And just a bunch of questions.† After this first semester I kinda see how it is.† And Ö I kinda answered all my own questions.† Like, how are the people how are the classes going to be?† Or like maybe -- think itís hard.† But they turn out pretty alright.
††††††††††† American Indian students have goals, ambitions, hopes and dreams.† Although the students in this study struggled socially, academically, financially and personally, they all returned the following semester.† The personal determination they possessed was inspiring.† It is hoped that the findings in this study will enlighten personnel working with Indian students, and provide guidance for future research.†
 It is important to note that the mission of a tribal college is not only to prepare students for transfer.† Many students at a tribal college are there for life-long learning opportunities or learning about the native culture.