It’s late June, and groups of young students are exploring the otherwise empty UNLV-TV studio, with some seated behind the anchor desk in cushy red chairs reading a teleprompter while others deliver fake weather forecasts before a green screen.
Could they see themselves occupying those seats for real one day?
The students, all identifying as Native American, had traveled from all across Nevada and as far away as Fort McDermitt on the Oregon border. They came for the university’s recently retooled Native Youth College Camp, the first since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The four-day camp aims to spark in the Native youth a vision of themselves as college students. The agenda put students physically in spaces they can one day occupy, whether that’s in a sound booth in Greenspun Hall as a radio intern, in a residence hall debating current events with roommates, or in the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art to get insights into how others see Nevada lands.
“Maybe they never would have seen themselves being on radio or being a journalist, but now they get the opportunity to come to UNLV and roleplay a bit and see what all of that looks like,” said Devan Harris, associate director for Early Outreach.
But the event was also designed to connect Native students from across the state — on and off reservation, rural and urban — with each other. It’s an early start on building networks amongst themselves. The camp also featured numerous Native American role models, such as American Indian motivational speaker Chance Lee Rush and artist Fawn Douglas, a UNLV alumna and current MFA student.
“Students need to be able to see themselves, see folks who have experienced success who look like them, who sound like them, and who have had experiences that are similar,” Harris said.
Partnering to Expand the Reach
After the pandemic forced a hiatus of the program, Harris reimagined the camp alongside her staff, the Nevada Department of Education, the Clark County School District, and other community partners.
This was the first year UNLV’s Early Outreach program within the Office of Admissions spearheaded the camp. And, rather than simply show students what college can offer, she sought out a deeper understanding of what young students said would best help them.
Last spring, Harris assigned undergraduate social work major Sarah Mae Agbilay to conduct and compile research on the daily lives and post-secondary educational challenges facing Native American youth across Nevada. Her interviews and research formed the basis for some of the changes made to the programming. “We really have a better picture of what those barriers are that are facing Native American youth pursuing higher education, and that’s exactly where Early Outreach comes in,” Harris said.
Agbilay’s research ultimately found a lack of college and career awareness/readiness and a very limited knowledge of post-secondary life, particularly for Nevada’s Native students living on reservations. There were also misconceptions of Las Vegas living, cultural differences from life in a tribal community, and misconceptions about college costs, scholarships, and financing options.
“Today I see a lot of improvement, but I also see a lot of the same things I struggled with,” said Fredina Drye-Romero, an education programs professional for Indian education within the Nevada Department of Education’s Office of Inclusive Education.
Drye-Romero, a member of the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians and affiliated with the Moapa Band of Paiutes, said that although she graduated years ago, the challenge of self-identity that she faced remains for Native students. In her work now, she tries to alleviate some of these barriers for the next generation.
The Nevada Department of Education supported the camp through its Native Youth Community Project Grant offered by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Indian Education. The grant allowed students from the Yerington Paiute and Walker River Paiute Tribes as well as the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes to attend the camp.
That’s how Nicolette Northrup, 17, became part of a group of students touring Greenspun Hall on Friday afternoon.
Northrup is entering her junior year of high school. Having grown up in McDermitt, a small town on the Nevada-Oregon border, Northrup leans toward Western Nevada College in Carson City, which reminds her of her hometown.
However, she’s already thinking beyond college with plans to attend law school, a longtime goal of hers. The UNLV trip, she said, offered insight into what it means to be away from home in a different environment.
“I think it’ll help not only show us what college is like but also get us used to what the city is like and how you have to navigate yourself around,” she said.
Lindora Emm, a chaperone on the trip and a member of the Yerington Paiute tribe, said exposure to a metropolitan area like Southern Nevada and a large university like UNLV was an integral part of the camp experience for the students.
“That’s exactly why they are here. Because a lot of these students come from a reservation that’s isolated,” she said. “They don’t get off the reservation very often. Maybe they go to Reno, but they don’t get to check out the colleges. This is a great experience for them coming here to UNLV, and it’s all paid for.”
Investing in Early Outreach
The program is offered to students from 7th through 12th grade. Drye-Romero said that’s intentional.
Part of getting Native students comfortable in college settings is to expose them to higher education early in their academic careers.
“The younger we can get them to start thinking about college and a career, the more it increases student motivation and readiness to attend those colleges and the vocational training. We have got to get them early,” she said.
One of the proudest parts of the weekend schedule for Drye-Romero was the campers’ visit to the Palms Casino Resort, which is owned by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
“Our students need to see that things are happening outside of their tribal communities,” she said. “Bigger and better things can occur when you have an education for your people. Education for our people isn’t an individual thing. It’s for an entire tribe.”