Universal Mentors Association

Navajo Technical University offers first tribal university Ph.D. program


Navajo Technical University in New Mexico has come a long way since its founding about 40 years ago as a job skills training center with five signature vocational programs.

The tribal university—which rests on the largest Native American reservation in the U.S., an expanse roughly the size of West Virginia—changed names multiple times and went from being a center to an institute of technology to a college to a university as it expanded its academic offerings. The university built up its more than 30 certificate, associate degree and baccalaureate programs over the years, launching its first master’s degree program a decade ago.

But campus leaders have long held an unrealized dream to develop a Ph.D. program, said Elmer Guy, president of the university. Now the institution is poised to become the first tribal university in the country to do so.

Administrators hope the new program in Diné, or Navajo, culture and language sustainability will produce scholars to preserve their language. Tribal college leaders and advocates see the program, which is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and will begin this fall, as a milestone for the 37 tribal colleges and universities nationwide and as possible inspiration for doctoral programs to come.

“The Navajo Nation, they have concerns about our young people, our young children, not speaking the language or not really understanding the history or the culture or the importance of it,” Guy said. “The larger effort is really about strengthening our sovereignty as an Indigenous nation. Language and culture is the basis, the foundation, of who we are, and that is what our sovereignty is. That makes us unique and distinct.”

The road to accreditation for the doctoral program wasn’t easy. University leaders had to assess if there was local need for the program, if they had enough faculty members with the right expertise and what courses to offer. The plans for the program were then presented to a curriculum committee at the university followed by the Faculty Congress, the president’s cabinet and the Board of Regents before submitting the application to the Higher Learning Commission. The accreditor then visited campus to meet with university leaders as well as with local K-12 school administrators to determine if there was truly demand for the program.

“It took quite a bit of work, quite a bit of commitment from everyone,” Guy said. “Knowing that this was going to be our first Ph.D. program, we wanted to let the Higher Learning Commission know that we were ready for it. You kind of get nervous going through the process.”

But to his relief, that meticulous preparation by key stakeholders was rewarded with an approval letter from the accreditor this spring.

Guy believes the dissertations of future doctoral students will contribute to the scant existing academic research on topics of importance to the Navajo Nation, such as best practices for teaching the Navajo language in K-12 schools. He also foresees graduates going on to public service careers that benefit the Navajo Nation, as policy makers, lobbyists, writers, poets, professors and teachers, among other roles.

The university currently offers a master’s degree program in Diné culture, language and leadership as well as certificate programs that train translators and interpreters to help Navajo-speaking witnesses in courts and voters at polling sites. He sees the doctoral program as an outgrowth of that work.

“I think a lot of times we have to grow our own professionals,” he said. “And this is growing our own. The graduates will certainly be role models for the younger generations.”

The program plans to start with an inaugural cohort of five students, but the university has already received more than a dozen applications. The goal is to grow the program in the future. University leaders held a celebration ceremony for the new program in April during the new moon and at the cusp of spring.

“In our culture, we pay attention to the seasons,” Guy said. “The new moon … comes out really skinny, a crescent, and then if you observe it, then that moon will get bigger and then pretty soon it’ll be a full moon … At the spring, you see a lot of plants growing, the trees budding … We hope that the program will also grow in that way.”

Miguel Cardona, U.S. secretary of education, congratulated the university in a video message, played at the on-campus celebration.

“When I think about the magnitude of what you’ve accomplished, it’s not enough to say you’re starting a new Ph.D. program,” Cardona said. “What you’re really doing is raising the bar for educational sovereignty. You’re raising the bar for how tribal colleges and universities can innovate to affirm and advance Native languages and culture. You’re raising the bar for how Native students can exercise leadership rooted in their language, in their culture, to help their communities. And you’re raising the bar not only for the Navajo Nation but for all nations that will see the power of your model.”

The ‘Next Generation’ of Tribal Education

The meaning of this moment to tribal college leaders and advocates is “practically indescribable,” said Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), an organization representing tribal colleges and universities. She believes it marks a new era for these institutions.

The consortium was born out of a burgeoning tribal higher education movement exactly 50 years ago, and “we’re entering the second circle of the tribal college movement … the next generation and experience in tribal higher education,” Billy said. “To kick off that second circle with the first Ph.D. program ever is so significant.”

She noted that tribal colleges were partly founded to preserve and revitalize Native languages and culture, and many of those languages now have few speakers left among the younger generations.

What differentiates the new Ph.D. program from Indigenous Studies offerings at nontribal universities is “the curriculum, the courses, are developed by Navajo people on our homeland,” she said. “It’s a kind of experience you wouldn’t get at any other institution of higher education.”

Billy believes more graduate education programs at tribal colleges could help remove some of the barriers that prevent Native students from earning graduate degrees at higher rates. She highlighted that these institutions foster a sense of belonging with culturally relevant courses and are known for their emphasis on affordability and extensive wraparound supports to serve students disproportionately from low-income backgrounds.

Native American graduate degree attainment rates are low relative to their non-Native peers. Only 4.8 percent of Native American, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian adults hold a graduate degree compared to 5 percent of Latino adults, 7.8 percent of Black adults and 13.4 percent of white adults, according to a 2018 report by the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization focused on closing equity gaps in education. Only 24 percent of indigenous adults had earned an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 47 percent of white adults.

Angelique Albert, CEO of the Native Forward Scholars Fund, said Native American students face all kinds of obstacles to obtaining graduate-level degrees.

“Many of the barriers students face in pursuing and completing doctoral degrees are tied to being the first, first in your family to do it without a roadmap,” she said in an email. “The expectations at every level of degree change and students often don’t know what to expect.”

She added that a recent study by Native Forward and three other Native American scholarship providers found that 72 percent of students indicated they ran out of money at least once within six months of the survey, 67 percent were expected to help with family bills and 43 percent reported an annual household income of less than $20,000.

“Tuition at TCUs remains extremely competitive compared to other institutions,” Albert said. “The program at Navajo Technical University is groundbreaking because it allows for Native students to achieve terminal degrees, while remaining close to home and culture and creates a stronger pathway to career placement within communities. This speaks to the number one barrier of higher education for Native students, which ties back to cost and being able to afford college.”

For now, only eight tribal universities offer master’s degree programs, and while some tribal colleges may aspire to launch their own Ph.D. programs, they generally lack the resources, Billy said. The U.S. Department of Education has pre-existing funding programs for both historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions to develop graduate-level offerings, but there’s no such program for tribal colleges. She and her colleagues at AIHEC have been advocating for an amendment to the Higher Education Act or other legislation to create a similar program for their institutions.

The lack of federal dollars makes Navajo Technical University’s feat all the more impressive, she said. But if more federal funds were readily available, “there would have been programs already, more programs that would have been in existence for years that would have propelled us further, that would have potentially saved languages that are now extinct. We’re losing every year, every semester, that there’s a delay.”

Charles M. Roessel, president of Diné College, a tribal college in Arizona, said tribal colleges and universities are increasingly launching graduate-level programs to further preserve and celebrate their identities and address a growing demand for employees with higher degrees. His college launched a research-focused master’s program in biology this academic year and has plans to develop master’s programs in business administration and school leadership.

He said graduate degree programs are expensive for tribal colleges and universities to offer and can be hard to sustain, so specific programs that address long-term tribal needs tend to be the most successful.

He believes the launch of the doctoral program at Navajo Technical University publicizes that tribal colleges and universities offer “the whole gamut of education.”

“What NTU did is planting a flag to show, it’s not just that we are still here but we are prospering,” Roessel said.

Guy hopes the new Ph.D. program is the first of many at tribal universities.

“The way I look at it, we’ve kind of opened the door for these opportunities,” he said. “I know that my colleagues that I work with at tribal colleges are very excited and they want to be there. They’re dreaming also.”


Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *