The ceremony was fairly pro forma. Held at the Laramie Hilton Ballroom, flanked by family and friends, each student selected a faculty member to speak on their behalf. Each faculty member shared personal anecdotes about the student, along with a brief biography that the student had put together. It was a nice evening, but far from unique among the many graduation observances across the Nation.
I think what made the ceremony portion special, though, were the events that followed a faculty member's remarks: every graduating student was presented with a Pendleton Blanket, long the gold-standard for gift exchange among American Indian communities. Once the ceremony was over, the invited drum group played a closing song, and an invited elder fanned each student with the incense of burning cedar (a process otherwise known as cedaring in Indian Country).
It was a pan-Indian ceremony to be sure, but one that reflected the diversity of backgrounds and tribal affiliations of the Native students who call UW home.As the evening carried on, there were plenty of laughs and smiles, along with the inevitable tears of pride from families. But as we discussed the achievements of each graduate, it became easy to take their accomplishments for granted. After all, that's what we do when we celebrate graduates. We celebrate their accomplishments - even if it's merely finishing the arduous task of a university education itself. No small feat, but it's expected. As a society, it's what we do.
Naturally, as I listened to the accolades, the mindset that "of course, students will amass a number of accomplishments" was never far from my estimation. And yet, now that a couple of days have passed, it's clear to me that this is so very far from the truth.
The article is a bit cold on the wires now, but according to Dr. Dean Chavers, Director of Catching the Dream (Ph.D, Stanford University), the accomplishments we witnessed on Friday night were actually quite rare:
Only 17 percent of Indian students go on to college from high school. And since 50 percent of these high school students drop out before graduation, only 8.5 percent of Indian students enter college. This compares to 70 percent nationally. Thus Indian enrollment in college is only 12 percent of non-Indian enrollment. And 82 percent of these Indian college students drop out before they graduate from college; they never earn a degree. For every Indian college graduate per unit of population, there are 30 non-Indian graduates. And the gap has been getting larger over the past 40 years, not smaller.
Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/06/16/myth-indian-scholarships-and-native-dropout-epidemic-118525Based on this assessment, a whopping 6.97% of American Indians will actually earn a college degree. Set aside the adversity of losing a family member in the midst of college, and set aside the rigors and stress of student competition at the highest levels of college debate (personal disadvantages that two of our students had to overcome), what we witnessed and celebrated on Friday night was the rare graduation of a group of American Indians.
Far from falling victim of the statistics of Dr. Chavers, our UW graduates joined that narrow 6.97% of their American Indian peers and earned a college degree. Regardless of their GPAs and resumes, upon graduation, our seven students entered a meaningful elite - for who is better positioned to do more, to continue to compete, and to utilize the skills that they have learned to the direct benefit of their communities, than the Native students graduating from college?
Indeed, perhaps, among no other ethnic group in America is a college degree so important as it is to Native Americans.
And so, as our Native graduates move from hither to yon, I wish you all well. Thank you for the years you've shared with me. Thank you for the perseverance that you demonstrated, however fraught the circumstances may have been. And thank you for allowing me to witness as close to a miracle as we still have in this modern era - the celebration of your collegiate accomplishments.
And most of all, thank you for the things you will accomplish. May your journal, henceforth, be blank.