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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Recent UW programs build high school-to-college ‘pipelines’ for Native students

Only 10 of the people UW-Madison sophomore Demko Montgomery-Elm graduated middle school with now attend post-secondary schooling. 

The decision to quit schooling is not uncommon for many students in districts near tribal communities of northern Wisconsin similar to the one she attended in Minocqua, Wis. Montgomery-Elm. A member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, she said students typically discontinue their education due to financial instability or a view of college as an unrealistic goal.

Montgomery-Elm was one of the students who continued on to college after she graduated from Lakeland High School, where 21 percent of the student body is Native American. She ended up at UW-Madison after participating in the university-operated college preparatory outreach program, Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, or PEOPLE.

She and several of her peers were contacted by a designated Native students counselor for showing academic success during their freshman year of high school. After she was accepted she took advantage of resources the program provided, including ACT Prep courses and overnight trips to UW-Madison. On these visits, high school students took classes for several weeks and stayed on-campus to experience what campus feels like as a student.

PEOPLE staff visited high schools in the northern part of Wisconsin located on or near reservations, like Montgomery-Elm’s alma mater.

However, the program stopped enrolling new students at her school this summer, along with several other northern Wisconsin school districts. A redesign of PEOPLE North is in progress, according to PEOPLE North Coordinator Samantha Maki.

Instead, PEOPLE will focus all of their resources in only urban Madison and Milwaukee due to the larger cities’ population size, as well as large gaps in area high school’s graduation rates between white students and students of color.

“After [an] external evaluation, the program set a goal to provide one common experience for all PEOPLE students,” Maki said in an email. “Given the very different geographical landscape and cultural differences for the Native American population, rather than trying to make them fit into our new model for Milwaukee and Madison, the program decided to create the framework of a separate program.”

PEOPLE reaches out to low-income students and students of color with a goal of creating a more diverse UW-Madison student population. Students become involved in late middle school or early high school and spend these years taking courses. Students are given resources in order to prepare themselves to apply to post-secondary education and, ideally, attend UW-Madison.

Montgomery-Elm said the exposure to UW-Madison before attending helped prepare her for the culture shock of college.

UW-Madison freshman and Native American PEOPLE scholar Mary Jane James had a similar experience. She said it took time to adjust to the cultural changes of moving from her reservation to Madison, where she became part of a percentage much smaller than she was used to.

“My experience was kind of hard coming from a reservation where I was around all Native Americans, then I came to the PEOPLE program and it was a diverse group of students,” James said. “It was hard to be comfortable in that environment but I got used to it … it made me more comfortable coming in the summers; I got a sense of knowing the campus.”

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UW reaches Native students through technology, health profession awareness

PEOPLE is a fairly competitive program, according to Montgomery-Elm. And with the cuts, students in northern school districts lose a college preparatory resource — one that makes students aware of their potential and opportunities post-graduation — that Montgomery-Elm said is already lacking.

In the last five years, UW-Madison formed additional programs to directly reach Native students in Wisconsin.

One is Information Technology Academy, operated through UW-Madison’s Division of Information Technology, that coaches high school students through technology used in academic institutions in order to prepare them for post-secondary education.

ITA partners with PEOPLE; ITA students who attend UW-Madison become PEOPLE college scholars. This grants them an eight-semester tuition scholarship.

Although ITA was established in 2000, the program didn’t reach students of Oneida and Lac du Flambeau nations until 2013 due to lack of funding.

Currently, 26 percent of students enrolled in the technology program are Native American. Like PEOPLE, ITA requires high school students to participate in enrichment programs through high school. They participate in weekly technology coursework as well as attending two cohort gatherings in the fall and two more in the spring and a weekend in Madison.

According to ITA’s Executive Director Ron Jetty, students build their own websites, make movies and write computer codes among other skills.

But instruction goes beyond providing technology training. Jetty said these skills are useful because basic technology skills are needed in higher education as well as most career fields. ITA also primes students to be “competitive” for admission to UW-Madison.

“We know the elements of the profile of a successful high school student who gets into Madison, and we try put those experiences in our students’ backpacks so they have it as part of their profile,” Jetty said.

ITA staff offers additional guidance, including tutoring programs, that gets high school students ready for college; Jetty said about 50 percent of ITA students are accepted to UW-Madison. Participation in ITA, as well as PEOPLE, does not guarantee admission the university.

Jetty said students that are not admitted to the university often attend Madison Area Technical College, typically with the intent of eventually transferring to UW-Madison, or other UW System schools.

Even with students being drawn to UW-Madison through ITA and PEOPLE programs, Native American students still make up the smallest portion of UW-Madison’s student body. Within the university’s medical school, proportions align with that of the rest of campus — only 14 Native American students are enrolled in the Doctor of Medicine Program.

The Native American Center for Health Professions recruits students as early as middle school. The program’s director, Danielle Yancey, said the number of Native students enrolled in UW-Madison’s MD program has risen since the center was implemented in 2012.

NACHP focuses its pre-college efforts on encouraging more Native students to consider careers in health care. Like ITA and PEOPLE, they offer tutoring and exam preparation services, as well as help students prepare their medical school applications.

The center reaches pre-college, undergraduate and professional students. They work with PEOPLE by visiting the schools PEOPLE reaches and educating students in middle and high school about the various career options within health care.

Yancey said the goal of the center is to have more Native American professionals in health care, especially since Wisconsin is home to 12 tribal nations. She said NACHP has a formal partnership with five of these nations. A council comprised of leaders from each tribe meets with NACHP staff to inform them about their community and needs. The partnerships allows the center to provide medical students with the opportunity to complete their hands-on, in-person clinical training at tribal care centers. Yancey said this program not only allows students to complete trainings, but helps tribal communities struggling with providing adequate health care to its members.

“Ninety-five percent of our tribal communities in Wisconsin are considered health professional shortage areas. That means there’s less than one primary care provider for every 3,500 patients,” Yancey said. “There’s a huge need for more health professionals. Our center is really working towards creating greater access to these opportunities [for students] and creating more awareness about this need.”

Jetty said UW-Madison has historically not done well at student outreach in tribal communities, which speaks to the reasons why programs like ITA, PEOPLE and NACHP need to exist. He and Maki said these programs are important not only for creating a diverse population at UW-Madison, but but also for providing higher education for Native students, which Maki said is beneficial for them "in this day and age" when student’s voices are increasingly important.

“The best way to protect [Native Americans’] natural resources, defend their treaty rights and revitalize their culture, is to have strong voices in the world of law, environmental studies, medicine and more,” Maki said. “Despite the portrayal in the history books, Native Americans are vibrant, alive and fighting, and UW is better as a whole by reaching these communities.”

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