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Immersion program introduces American Indian students to campus

STANFORD--Stanford's American Indian Summer Immersion Program (AISIP), which has won national recognition among educators for its success in providing an intensive orientation to academic life for students in need of a bridge from native community to university, is now under way.

Funded by the Irvine Foundation and now in its seventh year, the program is taking place in Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, the theme residence for Native American students.

Jim Larimore, assistant dean of students and director of the American Indian Program Office for the past nine years, started the program in 1988 because of high dropout rates among American Indian students.

"Nationwide, only 55 percent of Native American students graduate from high school," Larimore said. A scant 26 percent go on to college, and of this number a mere 6 percent complete their degree programs (compared with about 20 percent of the total U.S. population that finishes four years of college).

"Historically, American Indian and Alaska Native students had the highest attrition rate of any group of students on the Stanford campus," he said. "In many years it was not unusual for about half of the first-year Native American students to leave Stanford before completing their first year of studies. In addition, while many American Indian students entered Stanford with an interest in premed and science majors, most ended up majoring in the humanities and social sciences because they lacked the foundation courses in math and science."

But beginning in 1988, with the first AISIP program, these figures have turned around, Larimore said, and the benefits of AISIP appear to be cumulative. "Year by year, AISIP students have developed and strengthened peer support programs, incorporating them into the fabric of the community to the point that one of the Native American community's greatest celebrations in 1993 was in honor of the fact that not a single Native American freshman was on academic probation at the end of fall quarter."

Enrollment of American Indians at Stanford has increased steadily in the last decade in both undergraduate and graduate programs. And while Stanford's undergraduate retention rate has increased to approximately 90 percent, retention rates nationally have remained stagnant.

AISIP is not a remedial program. It is a voluntary and intensive three-week academic enrichment program designed to give entering American Indian students firsthand experience with the type of curriculum they will face throughout their college careers. It also gives participants exposure to the culture of the university and to resources and people who can help them succeed.

The AISIP curriculum focuses each day on three main areas, with both group and individual assignments: writing, math and study skills/learning strategies. Integrated throughout the three- week program are American Indian Studies topics, as well as special seminars on such topics as the freshman advising system, library resources, research opportunities and long-term career objectives.

Of the 17 American Indian undergraduates in this fall's entering class, 11 are participants in AISIP '94. They come from seven different states and represent a diverse array of tribes: Aleut, Apache, Blackfoot, Caddo, Chippewa, Comanche, Cree, Creek, Hidatsa, Mandan, Navajo, Seminole and Yaqui. They will return to their homes after their three-week immersion at Stanford and then come back a few days before Stanford's regular freshman orientation for a special preorientation program that includes all new Indian students.

The coordinators for AISIP '94 are Gil Ramirez, a Yaqui graduate student in the Anthropology Department, and his wife, Renya, a Winnebago and Chippewa graduate student in the School of Education, who also is instructor for the writing classes. Aaron Thomas, a Navajo undergraduate majoring in chemical engineering, is instructor for the math classes. Guest lecturers and workshop leaders include both Stanford faculty and staff. Among this year's guests is Benny Shendo of Jemez Pueblo, who will leave his position at the University of New Mexico to succeed Larimore in September as assistant dean of students and director of the American Indian Program Office at Stanford.

The resident assistants, who have joined the Ramirezes and their three children in Muwekma-Tah-Ruk - whose meaning in the Ohlone language is "House of the People" - are themselves past participants in AISIP. They are Choctaw undergraduate Powtawche Williams, who is pursuing a double major in music and mechanical engineering, and Navajo undergraduate Marcel Begay, whose interests also are in music and engineering.

According to Larimore, an analysis of the academic performance of participants in AISIP showed AISIP students to have significantly better course completion records than entering American Indian students who did not participate in the program. In particular, he said, AISIP participants are progressing more rapidly and successfully through the math and science curriculum.

The American Indian Summer Immersion Program has succeeded in countering factors that have made it difficult for the American Indian undergraduate to succeed at Stanford, Larimore said.

"Often American Indian students who arrive at Stanford are separated for the first time in their lives from their communities, where identity and support have been sustained by family, friends and a unique tribal religion. In those very communities, however, schools have not provided them with the same rigorous academic preparation that the majority of Stanford students have had. Placed in an environment that is socially and culturally foreign, and underprepared to meet the demands of course work, their continued success in what has been a long battle to succeed becomes increasingly difficult.

"Our mission is focused on a positive transition to college," Larimore said, "in welcoming these new members into our community, challenging and supporting them in their preparation for life at Stanford, and helping them see how they can help themselves and others.

"We view our students as important resources to the Indian community," he said. "They are our future leaders, and our survival as Indian people depends on how well we prepare them for that role."



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