September 21, 2016
By Tomas WhiteAntelope

The stark lack of Native student admissions to California’s best public universities concerns me on many levels, both as a former UC Berkeley student and now as a staff member at the campus. Yet it is because of my identity as a Northern Arapaho and Lummi tribal member that this scarcity touches me so deeply.

Each spring, a pow-wow is hosted by Native American Student Development at UC Berkeley with the goal of providing a social space for youth, along with vendors and dance competitions of fancy, grass, jingle, northern traditional, and shawl. I attended the pow-wow last year hoping to greet recent alumni and congratulate high school students on their acceptance to UC Berkeley. I was therefore shocked when I discovered that the students whom I knew were more than capable of succeeding at any of the UC campuses, were not accepted into any of the campuses.

This shock returned to my mind once more when I came across the latest University of California Preliminary Admission Rate Data, which demonstrated that, once again, Native students in particular, and Black and Brown students more broadly, were underrepresented among accepted students. After witnessing the many ways these students overcame severe and potentially debilitating challenges in their personal and academic lives, I can’t help but feel the failure to accept these students is a systemic one.

After witnessing the many ways these students overcame severe and potentially debilitating challenges in their personal and academic lives, I can’t help but feel the failure to accept these students is a systemic one.

Let me share my own experiences to better illustrate this perspective. I grew up on a Native American reservation in Washington, and struggled with poverty, family members with severe health problems, little educational opportunities and an obvious lack of government infrastructure and support, among other challenges. It was only because I learned to advocate for myself—including becoming emancipated from my drug-addicted and impoverished mother as a teen and petitioning to attend a federally-run boarding school for Native students in California—that I found my way to UC Berkeley.

I was in and out of school, didn't have much support, or place to live (besides the couch at my sister's boyfriend's mom's house). After years of this chronic instability, I decided to seek a future with greater opportunity, and enrolled myself in a Native American boarding school in California. I stopped asking friends and family for a couch to sleep on and instead marched to the Lummi Tribal Court Office and petitioned to have my measly $100.00 from the Northern Arapaho Tribe to be put in an Individual Indian Money account, since my mom had been taking it and leaving me homeless. I went through a long process to emancipate myself and ultimately was able to send myself to boarding school. There, I loved having my own key to my beat up room and control over my own space. I did what I had to do to survive at school, including selling alcohol, cigarettes, and relying on what little money relatives sent me to sustain myself.

At the school, I also gained an appreciation for the value of higher education and applied to campuses within the UC system with the hope that I could achieve even greater success and opportunity. I originally wanted to join the Air Force, but that changed after I attended a college workshop held by UCI & UCLA Native students. They shared their story and throughly explained the process of applying to the UC system. Their encouraging words and guidance on things like how to get fees waived gave me the confidence to apply. I only say this because the amount of students graduating from Sherman is slim. The high school population would begin each year with around 700 students, but due to students being kicked out (thanks to a strict Zero Tolerance policy), that number would be reduced to around 400 students by the end of the year. Our graduating class had an average of 70 students graduating each year with about 10% students heading off to any place of higher education. With those numbers in mind, very few Native students attend any university, UC or otherwise. 

In 2009, I was accepted into UC Berkeley, leading me on the trajectory I am on today.

But it shouldn’t be this hard for youth with my background to achieve success, which is why I believe that lack of Native American admissions to this state’s top universities is a systemic failure in all levels of our education system. Failing to support the most marginalized in our community is a failure of the highest order, especially when these students have run to the finish line from a starting point much farther back than their peers.

But it shouldn’t be this hard for youth with my background to achieve success, which is why I believe that lack of Native American admissions to this state’s top universities is a systemic failure in all levels of our education system. Failing to support the most marginalized in our community is a failure of the highest order, especially when these students have run to the finish line from a starting point much farther back than their peers. Last year, I served as an Academic Outreach and Education Consultant for the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) American Indian Education, Title VII Program, helping Native youth achieve exactly what these dismal numbers told me didn’t happen—admission to colleges and universities throughout this great state.  In this role, I devoted myself to helping Native students in San Francisco make it to college. And I did more than just help write essays. I attended parent/teacher conferences where I was asked to offer explanations why this Native student was “too quiet” or that one was “too angry.” I had to explain what a Lakota student’s long hair meant. I had to remain calm when students were told they were losing grade points because “unreliable public transportation cannot be an excuse” for being late to their first period, “as other students make it to school just fine.” I remember trying harder to educate the teachers and parents than the students. I witnessed how invisible the students felt.

As I told these SFUSD students my story, I could see reflected in their eyes what I saw from my own—the need for a community that would wholeheartedly accept them.

As I told these SFUSD students my story, I could see reflected in their eyes what I saw from my own—the need for a community that would wholeheartedly accept them. After telling them my experience of leaving my home and going to a boarding school, many students decided they too wanted to attend a Native American boarding school. But I also had mixed feelings about encouraging them to attend those schools. My own boarding school, Sherman Indian High School, which provided so much opportunity for me, was also an institution that forcibly housed thousands of Native children in an attempt to “save the man and kill the Indian,” a stated doctrine of the US military, written with the belief that if Natives changed their behavior and eliminated their culture, they could be assimilated into the dominant society—white society. I felt that our ancestors would be baffled that Native youth who made it to the city and off the forbidden reservations are now headed back into the same schools that less than a century ago killed so many of them, a sentiment I still struggle with today.

The rate of incarceration, suicide, lack of education opportunity, death is at an all time high for Native peoples. I hope that my conversations with students, where we connected over our common backgrounds, did create some hope in their futures. I would always tell them, “Regardless of where you come from, you can always do and be whatever you want.” I wanted to let them know this life is a choice and that giving up is of course an option, but one that can greatly affect those around you. You have to have a plan—and if you are Native American, you are also going to need several backup plans. Through even deeper discussions, we talked about how our lack of parents or male role models could possibly benefit us. The lack of parenting or better yet having fathers and male role models in lives could benefit us.

I assisted students with their college applications, their personal statements, and GPA reviews. I worked best mostly as a mentor, providing feedback and editing their personal statements, such as “How to overcome a struggle with leadership.” These SFUSD students were bright and intelligent, ready for the UC system.  When I discovered that none had been accepted into the UC system, despite hours and hours of work and facing down their own demons and challenges, I blamed my own personal effort in these students’ college applications. Maybe it was because they were short of a perfect 4.0 GPA, or maybe they spoke too much about the negative impacts of life? Ultimately, though, it is both the students and the UC that suffers, as California’s university systems remains a closed-off tower for a majority of its own residents—unattainable to those who could use this opportunity most.

While I know that state budgets and decades of disinvestment have made the UC system more reliant on out-of-state admissions, private donations, the UC must maintain a commitment to supporting and including the people of our state, from the most privileged to the most marginalized. I am disheartened by the shortsighted state policies that have cut funding and assistance to its public educational institutions, along with Prop. 209 which made it illegal to review an applicant’s background information like race, sex, or ethnicity. Affirmative Action policies were critical a few decades ago in helping increase diversity on college campuses nationwide. 

Admissions is one part of problem, the next issue I have noticed for first generation college students like myself is retention. The harsh reality is that in the last few years, Native Americans have made up less than 1 percent of admitted students to UC Berkeley. The situation wasn't much better two decades ago, but things did worsen after the UC Board of Regents passed Special Policy 1 (SP-1) in 1995, ending the use of race, ethnicity, and gender in admissions decisions. Coupled with a deep lack of funding to programs that help first generation college students, this policy strongly affected the Native American population in particular.

Today, we are witnessing the opposite, as what I discovered when none of the Native American students I mentored were accepted into this state’s best universities, despite coming so far in such difficult circumstances. It is not only students of color who may be losing out, as the UC's lose out on a diverse student body and people who are connected to the state in deep and meaningful ways.

UC Berkeley is the number one-ranked public university in the world. It’s true that admissions are competitive—but no chance is given to those who sprinting from far back in the race, perhaps without parental support, financial assistance, or academic guidance—as most native students are first generation college students. I understand that significant policy changes are needed even to discuss in-state, out-of-state, and international tuition. This is a critical and systematic perspective towards finding solutions.

My realizations about the critical need for greater diversity in college admissions have only made me more committed to understanding and holding the UC and the state of California accountable in educating our people, and my people in particular. I want to continue to explore, elevate, and advocate for pathways of educational success for everyone who may feel invisible to society—just like I did not too long ago as a young Native student hoping for a better future.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.