Shame the Scholarship System, Not Native Students

Recently, Dr. Dean Chavers wrote an article about how Native students aren’t applying for scholarships. This touched a nerve for me and a lot of others on the ICTMN Facebook page.

With all due respect to Dr. Chavers, the scholarship process is more than “a little difficult.” It’s confusing and complex with very specific criteria requirements. For example, when I first started as an undergraduate at the age of 25, McNair scholarships were not available. Also, as a nontraditional student, I didn’t qualify for most of the others–either my standardized test scores were too low, or I didn’t do enough community service. Back then, they wouldn’t take a letter from your tribe. When I came back to graduate school, I didn’t qualify for the graduate McNair scholarship because I’d already taken a few graduate classes to get ahead at my job. So, I worked my way through two master’s degrees. Now, as a doctoral student, everyone thinks my tribe pays for everything! My wonderful Nation is not rich, and I’ve received no money from them.

One of the biggest issues for me has been time. I worked full-time while going to school and raising my daughter without the help of a partner. I couldn’t devote enormous amounts of time to apply for individual scholarships. It’s not like each place wants the same thing! Only in this past year was a clearing house created for students to upload application materials to apply for at a few sources at once. Otherwise, these take A lot of time and effort because of the individuality of each scholarship. It’s also disheartening to apply for scholarships and get turned down for being nontraditional. Most scholarships go to fresh-faced, young people without blemished records and with good standardized scores enrolling for a particular science field. Those students are few and far between, especially in Indian country.

That’s not to say we’re not as smart or capable. It’s that we’re negotiating life’s obstacles in a world of poverty and stigma. The daily stress of being a college student coupled with microaggressions (e.g., mascots, classmates’ and professors’ insensitive remarks, etc.) is tiring. I’m worn out from the enormous amount of emotional work I have to do just to get along. Plus, poor kids have to work to help their parents out financially, and may not even own a computer. They rarely enjoy one-on-one attention for college prep and scholarship applications.

There are so many barriers to college, and then even more to the scholarship process. I just don’t think it’s fair to portray Native students as not trying to “win” scholarships. Most of us already know that other people are going to be more qualified than us, if the award is scored in the traditional Euro-American way; e.g., standardized tests, extra-curricular activities, and GPAs. It took me until my 30s to get past the shame of my background as a teen-aged, single parent and my obvious substandard education from a rural town in Oklahoma. Now, I’m in a top-30 program, working with professors known globally as experts in their respective fields. The admissions committee in the Sociology Department looked beyond my GRE scores and saw my potential. I haven’t let them down. I have a 4.0 GPA at the University of Massachusetts. I write for Indian Country Today Media Network!

In closing, what I’ve tried to say is that Dr. Chavers’s article needs context. Native students aren’t lazy or disinterested. Native students need guidance and support. So, stop blaming individual Native students for not knowing how to get money to pay for something that many never thought they’d be able to do in the first place–go to college!

Scholarship committees should put out the call earlier, encourage Native students to apply, and provide templates or other means for filling out the applications. Plus, don’t make it sound so competitive! I don’t want to always try to outdo someone else. Muscogee people aren’t supposed to draw attention to ourselves individually in competition, but to our group or team. The individualism of universities and scholarships make it hard for us to uphold our traditions and our cultures. Also, if you’re going to measure whether a student will succeed and bring honor to your fund, then look at how far they’ve come, not how well they did on a test. We’re already tired of our accomplishments being viewed as not being enough.

Most of all, please know this. We’re not white, which means we’re not going to think, speak, act, or write like white folk. We will think, speak, act, and write with excellence, but it’s up to the committee to recognize it. We will bring honor to the university and scholarship fund, alike, if given the chance.

Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a public sociologist.

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Shame the Scholarship System, Not Native Students

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