Helping Native American Students Defy the Odds and Reach Their Full Potential

Helping Native American Students Defy the Odds and Reach Their Full Potential

In August 2019, a welcome piece of news came from the University of Minnesota-Duluth: twelve Native American students were poised to begin their studies at the college’s medical school, representing just under 20 percent of the school's incoming medical students and an all-time high number of Native American students.

Unfortunately, however, data tells us that this is an atypical outcome for the millions of students who fit this demographic and attend public K-12 schools in the United States. Indeed, despite the fact that Native American students often have the worst academic outcomes of any non-white student group in the country, they are “often ignored in the national conversation about the public school achievement gap,” a 2018 New York Times report noted. 

Troublingly, Native American students have the lowest overall graduation rate in the country (at just below 75%), are half as likely to take advanced courses in high school, and face an increased risk of emotional/physical trauma and suicide. This outlook is so dire that the Obama administration “declared Native youths and their education to be in a ‘state of emergency’” in 2014, the Times reported.

These dismal statistics are echoed in the tiny number—just 0.1%—of recent medical school graduates across the nation who identified as Native American, according to a recent Minnesota Public Radio report. The resulting lack of representation and slew of vacancies at Indian Health clinics in Minnesota and beyond is a particularly concerning state of affairs given the health-related issues faced by many in the Native American community.

So, what lessons can be learned from UMD's 12 incoming Native American medical students? Before moving forward, we must first explore some of the history surrounding Native American students, as well as strategies and best practices that have proven useful when working with this population.

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Historical overview


  • Despite what we may have learned in school, Native Americans had “diverse, complex” societies long before Europeans arrived on this continent. (Students interested in learning more about Native American societies before contact can consult curriculum sources such as Khan Academy.)

  • A key aspect of pre-colonial Native American societies was the presence of an “effective educational system which ensured a smooth transmission of their cultures to the next generation,” according to Dr. Alberta Yeboah of Jackson State University. As described by Dr. Yeboah, this “aboriginal” education system prioritized the connectedness of nature and human beings, and reflected the skills Native American youth needed to thrive in their communities.

  • When Europeans began arriving in droves, Native American communities were largely cut off from their own established ways of educating youth. What followed was a traumatic period in history during which many young Native American people were sent to Indian Boarding Schools that immersed them in foreign ways of learning and living.

Contemporary connection

  • Not unlike their predecessors, members of today's Native American youth still wrestle with questions of assimilation to the dominant culture both in and out of school. Some of the challenges they commonly face are detailed in an article in The Atlantic written by Alexia Fernandez Campbell.

  • According to Fernandez Campbell, poverty, addiction issues, and disrupted family and community relationships pose significant threats to Native American students.

Strategies for success

  • In an interview with Fernandez Campbell about ways to better engage with Native American youth, Anna Ross of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Indian Education office described some of the steps taken by educators and school officials eager to more effectively serve Native American families.

  • According to Ross, grounding the K-12 experience in Native American traditions can be an effective way to help Native American students develop “confidence in themselves and pride in their history and culture.” This is particularly important in light of the fact that Native American families often report feeling invisible in society, and many carry historical trauma around education.

  • Another approach involves teaching indigenous languages to root students’ education in their past, present, and future. As student Kantuta Conde argued in a 2019 post on the UNICEF website, “Words preserve stories, traditions, culture, and identity.” Thus, facilitating access to instruction in indigenous languages may help keep Native American students' unique cultural traditions, legacies, and ways of thinking alive.

  • Improved access to indigenous languages and books has also been shown to boost overall academic outcomes for Native American students, as documented in a 2019 article by Education Week reporter Corey Mitchell.

  • Native American and non-Native American teachers alike have a responsibility to honor and support their Native American students. In this regard, helping teachers learn more about Native American history through local field trips and conferences may lead to improved educational opportunities for all.

Additional online resources are available for those interested in helping Native American students defy the odds and reach their full potential—both as individuals and as members of the Native American community. While not every student will choose to enter medical school, the impressive statistics from the University of Minnesota-Duluth are a rousing indicator of what can be possible when Native American students are no longer treated as invisible.


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