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UA program serving Native American communities gets $1.2M boost
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UA program serving Native American communities gets $1.2M boost

  • Dan DeLuca|CC BY 2.0

A University of Arizona College of Education program that provides mentoring and educational resources to Arizona's Indigenous communities will extend its reach thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the Arizona Department of Education.

The Native Student Outreach, Access and Resiliency program, better known as Native SOAR, emphasizes Indigenous teaching and knowledge. Over the course of 10 weeks, the program allows UA students from any major to spend about three to four hours a week mentoring middle and high students across Arizona and teaching them about attending college, cultural resiliency, leadership skills and identity exploration.

The ADE funding was provided to establish a comprehensive multi-generational mentoring program that centers on the needs of Native students statewide through the P-20 education system.

“Native SOAR is grateful to receive the Arizona Department of Education grant, which enables us to close the digital divide in our tribal communities and expand much-needed mentoring and professional development support services to Indigenous students and educators across Arizona,” said Dr. Amanda Cheromiah, director of Native SOAR.

“The ADE grant will help us to continue creating healing and innovative spaces to encourage students and communities that they are loved, and they are brilliant leaders. We look forward to transforming Indigenous education to better serve our communities in this pandemic era,” Cheromiah said.

Native SOAR was established in 2005 by Dr. Jenny Lee at the University of Arizona and Dr. Amanda Tachine at Arizona State University to provide culturally responsive support services for students, starting in kindergarten through doctoral education.

"Historically, Indigenous students have lower enrollment, retention, and graduation rates in higher education compared to other student populations," said Cheromiah. "Native SOAR closes educational gaps by providing culturally responsive programming and mentorship that increases the number of Indigenous students who enter and graduate from college."

Native SOAR expansion

The program includes a class, also called Native SOAR, in which university students can earn three credits per semester. Native SOAR staff and students also hold workshops, available to any local K-12 educators, that emphasize Indigenous knowledge and best practices to help educators better serve Indigenous students.

Although mentoring is at the center of the program's mission, Native SOAR includes a range of resources related to recruitment, retention and career development, said Cheromiah, who runs the program with two graduate student assistants, Jeremiah Foster and Myrhea Sherman.

Native SOAR had to find ways to offer those services virtually during COVID-19, Cheromiah added, doing so at first with funding from the College of Education and the Office of the Provost.

"Our ability to mentor online and in person really helped us create healing spaces and spaces of innovation with our Indigenous communities," Cheromiah said, adding that students and educators in rural areas had asked for better access to technology and online resources. "Being able to reach our remote communities has been very, very special."

The new funding will help the program continue to reach those communities, Cheromiah said. Over three years, Native SOAR will purchase 750 tablets, which will be loaded with mentoring resources, for middle and high school students. The program will purchase an additional 65 tablets for program staff and educators.

Native SOAR will also be able to offer more workshops and professional development opportunities to K-12 educators. One such event, held in February, brought educators from Southern Arizona school districts and tribal education offices to the University of Arizona campus.

The grant will also allow the program to continue paying its mentors, who earn a salary for their work, Cheromiah said.

"For nearly two decades, Native SOAR has been an invaluable resource for Indigenous students at the University of Arizona, as well as Indigenous communities across the state," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "This new funding from the state will allow this crucial program to reach more people. I am incredibly grateful to our outstanding Native SOAR faculty and staff, and I am so proud the University of Arizona is a leader in this work."

'We're standing here before you'

University of Arizona student Cassandra Perez first heard about Native SOAR while hanging out at Native American Student Affairs, a cultural center on the UA campus that serves Native American students. She said she "really clicked" with the opportunity to connect with young students and give back to local Indigenous communities.

"I think it's one of the best things that has ever happen to me," she said. "Native SOAR gave me a chance to share my story, but it also just gave me a chance to be myself, talk with other people from different backgrounds and to hear their stories as well."

Perez became one of Native SOAR's most prolific mentors in the last academic year, logging about 70 hours of mentoring and community programming – well beyond the 35 hours the class requires, Cheromiah said.

Perez, who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in law, said she didn't think twice about logging all those hours. She said Cheromiah always encouraged her and her fellow Native SOAR mentors to make the most out of their opportunities in college.

"I just had that in my mind – this is my last year, my last semester, and I'm going to go all out and I'm going to help as many people as I can," said Perez, who was crowned 2022-2023 Miss Native American University of Arizona in March. Her platform for the pageant emphasized mentoring Native American youth.

Perez plans to attend the James E. Rogers College of Law, where she will enroll in a dual degree program that will allow her to pursue a law degree alongside a master's degree in either Indigenous governance or American Indian studies. Perez said she knows she'll get through graduate school with the skills she learned from Native SOAR, such as how to connect with diverse groups of people, how to ask for help and how to have confidence in herself.

And she'll never forget what it means to have Indigenous role models in higher education – and to be one herself.

"They're just so encouraging, so uplifting," Perez said of Cheromiah and her team. "It's so awesome to see Indigenous peoples in higher education living out their dreams and telling their students, 'You are loved, you are smart, you can achieve this type of goal – you can do it because we're products of it and we're standing here before you.'"

Funding Native education

Funding for the grant comes from from the American Rescue Plan, and was awarded through Arizona’s competitive ARP School and Community Grantees program.

“In reviewing data from past years, we know that our Native students deserve more targeted support,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman. “These investments reflect that priority, and we are proud to invest in additional resources for Native communities.”

Hoffman announced in the 2021 State of Education address a $1 million dollar allocation to the Department’s Office of Indian Education, a statutorily mandated office that has never received funding from the Legislature.

The office provides outreach to all of Arizona’s local educational agencies on reservations and urban areas with high populations of American Indian students and operates with federal funding under the Johnson O’Malley Act, enacted by Congress in 1934 to subsidize education, medical attention and other services provided by states to American Indian and Alaskan Native students, with funding for the state program determined by student count.

The OIE works to provide technical assistance by encouraging tribal program and school districts to redirect the use of their federal funds to focus on academics needs of the students and to seek and hire qualified American Indian staff per federal regulations requiring Indian preference in hiring practices

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