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Two BYU studies aim to help Native Americans stay in school and overcome career obstacles

A pair of new studies from Brigham Young University researchers tackle the challenges Native Americans face in finishing high school and embarking on careers. Motivated by statistics that show Native Americans lagging the general population in college degrees (9.3 percent versus 20.3 percent) and average income ($21,750 versus $35,225), sociologist Carol Ward and psychologist Aaron Jackson undertook independent projects to explore possible solutions.

Ward's effort spanned three decades, involved her living on an Indian reservation for three years and culminated in a new book, "Native Americans in the School System," in which she discusses ways to stem the tide of Native American high school dropouts. Nationally, about 25 percent don't graduate -- the highest percentage among ethnic and cultural groups in the United States. However, in rural and reservation communities, dropout rates are often much higher.

"Community support was one of the biggest factors that influenced Native American youths' persistence in completing their high school education," said Ward, who observed distinctions among Native American students from the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana who had their pick of three different high schools serving their reservation.

She found there was substantial variation in dropout rates across the three schools, but students who attended the school serving their local community - especially the tribe's own school on the reservation - were more likely to graduate. Ward's exhaustive study tracked each youth in three graduating classes, many of whom transferred among the three schools. The study thus avoided omissions that may have come from focusing only on each school's graduation percentages. She also conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews.

The research yielded a surprise. Some prevailing theories held that Native American youth who come from homes strongly oriented to their heritage and tradition – that is, where the native language is spoken and native customs prevail – struggle to stay in school.

"I didn't find that to be true," said Ward. "The students that came from traditional families had the traditional support that those families give to their children, whatever they do, and going to school was one of the things. They got lots of support, and, in cases where traditionally oriented families had parents who had graduated from high school, those students had the highest graduation rates."

The belief that students from traditional families may struggle in school has basis in the reality that their English language skills may be lagging, said Ward. But, she added, "Some scholars have gone beyond that and assumed that native cultures are not in sync with American culture's individual achievement orientation, and, therefore, students closely aligned with their native traditions wouldn't be interested in educational achievement. I found that's not true."

Ward's project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education and BYU's College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, has resulted in the construction of another high school on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, and "the number of students that go to college directly after high school now has almost tripled," she said.

"Ward's powerful combination of quantitative and ethnographic research methods provides us with rich [information] to help illuminate the complexity of experiences and issues surrounding American Indians and school achievement," said Donna Deyhle, a professor of educational and ethnic studies at the University of Utah whose own work among Navajos has yielded findings similar to Ward's. "An ecological theoretical model positions her research at a critical edge in advancing our understanding of the astonishing and disturbing trend of an increase in the dropout rate among American Indian youth."

In addition to lack of educational attainment, psychologist Aaron Jackson's new study shows that many Native American youth may also fail to understand how to prepare for and get jobs. In his in-depth interviews with 29 Navajos about what obstacles they may perceive to their careers, Jackson, who was assisted by then-doctoral candidate Laura L. Hoffman and BYU psychologist Steven A. Smith, noticed that the young men limited their potential careers to blue-collar fields like welding and auto mechanics. Young women saw themselves in a wider variety of roles, including medicine and teaching.

Collectively, the participants often noted financial concerns and a reluctance to buck social norms. But perhaps most interestingly, Jackson observed "a sense of ambivalence and uncertainty about how to achieve their goals." Most participants only listed one or two barriers to careers, despite being asked to name three.

In the study, published in the "Journal of Career Development," Jackson recommended pairing students with a Native American mentor who has succeeded in higher education or a career of interest. This exposure, he believes, could help the youth better understand their goals and formulate plans to achieve them.

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