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MATH, SCIENCE MEAN TROUBLE FOR MANY AMERICAN INDIANS
STANFORD -- For many American Indian college students, making the transition from high school into university-level math and science courses can be tough going.
In fact, American Indian students use more tutors, drop and fail courses, and change more majors in mathematics and science than in any other curricular area, according to Stanford graduate Mary Jiron Belgarde. A Pueblo Indian from Albuquerque, N.M., Belgarde is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Oklahoma.
For her doctoral dissertation, "The Performance and Persistence of American Indian Undergraduate Students at Stanford University," Belgarde observed and interviewed 32 American Indian students and alumni, and 10 university administrators Although the study was limited to Stanford, the findings may be generalized to similar institutions, she said.
"Many American Indian college students have difficulty adjusting to math and science curricula because they lacked high expectations from teachers and advanced placement curricula during high school," Belgarde said.
"Academic advisors don't guide American Indian students into the appropriate levels of course work given their high school preparation, nor do students receive a sensitive response from faculty and teaching assistants. One administrator indicated that academic advisors don't receive high school academic background information from the admissions office."
American Indians constitute about 1 percent of the student body at Stanford, a figure comparable to most Ivy League schools. Some are "bi- cultural," from states with high populations of Indian people and high levels of cultural knowledge and ethnic loyalty; some are "intermediate," reared in urban and suburban white communities but maintaining contact with Indian communities; and others are "assimilated," having very limited Indian cultural knowledge or ethnic loyalty.
Belgarde found that bi-cultural students felt the most academic stress of the three groups, particularly when called upon repeatedly to present the "Indian point of view" in class. They also had some difficulty with social encounters in non-Indian environments; and many reported that lack of financial resources restricted their social integration into the larger university community.
"Intermediate" students typically had stronger high school academic backgrounds and felt less academic stress. However, some found their professors and non-Indian peers to be "ignorant and abrasive regarding Indians" and were less confident than assimilated students about participating in class discussions.
Assimilated students had the strongest high school records and felt the least academic stress in making the transition to college. However, many avoided or were excluded from campus Indian program activities, and some had to justify to their white friends why they identified themselves as Indian on their admissions applications.
"This is a major source of stress for this group of students," Belgarde said.
To address the problems, Belgarde advocates improved academic advising programs for all Indian students, more financial aid, retention of Indian cultural programs, expansion of Stanford's Indian theme house to include freshman residents, and "a more aggressive, immediate and nationwide search for American Indian faculty members."
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