University of Arizona offers free tuition to Indigenous students

Grants cover full-time undergraduates from Arizona’s 22 federally recognized Tribal Nations

By: - June 29, 2022 12:01 pm

Photo by University of Arizona

For the first time in Arizona, Indigenous undergraduate students will get the opportunity to take classes at a major public university without worrying about how to cover tuition.

The University of Arizona announced that it is launching a first-of-its-kind program that will cover tuition and mandatory fees for full-time Indigenous undergraduate students who are from any of Arizona’s 22 federally recognized tribes.

“Serving Arizona’s Native American tribes and tribal students is a crucial part of the University of Arizona’s land-grant mission, and the Arizona Native Scholars Grant program is another important step among many to do that,” University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins said in a press release announcing the program.

The ANS grant is geared toward full-time undergraduate students studying on the University of Arizona’s main campus in Tucson.

The grant will make up any difference between a student’s tuition, mandatory fees, and all other financial aid the student receives, such as a Pell Grant or merit scholarships, according to the University of Arizona’s financial aid website. The grant can be awarded for up to four years.

“I am so proud that this university has found a way to help hundreds of students more easily access and complete a college education, and I look forward to finding ways to take these efforts even further,” Robbins said.

The program will be funded through a reallocation of financial aid dollars and will be administered by the University of Arizona’s Enrollment Management, according to the university.

“The Tohono O’odham Nation is proud to partner with UArizona in its ongoing efforts to honor Native heritage and support Indigenous students,” Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. said in a statement to the Mirror. “This program will help ensure that students from the Nation and other tribes have the opportunity to access the world-class education opportunity available close to home at the University of Arizona.”

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Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis applauded the University of Arizona’s “landmark decision” on providing free tuition to Indigenous students.

“Quality education will continue to lift our Tribes and our people and help create the next generation of Arizona tribal leaders,” Lewis said in a statement to the Arizona Mirror. “This important acknowledgment of UA’s responsibility to the sovereign tribal nations of Arizona should be emulated across the state and nationally.”

The program begins in the fall for new and continuing full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates who will be eligible for the Arizona Native Scholars Grant program.

Education Director of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Serina Preciado said the University of Arizona announcement is important to the tribe because Indigenous students do not enroll at the rate that other subgroups do within colleges and universities,

“The experience of Pascua Yaqui students is that they live in multi-generational households and they are contributing to the household income,” she said.

This means that a lot of young Indigenous students are faced with the choice of either helping out the family by working or making the personal choice to thrive in a higher education setting.

“That’s not a choice that they have to make anymore, at least not if they attend the university,” Preciado said. “We hope that that (this) becomes something that gets alleviated across the state and in the country.”

Preciado said the new program also contributes to the intergovernmental agreement the Pascua Yaqui Tribe entered into with the University of Arizona in 2021, where the university committed to helping the Pascua Yaqui tribal members reach their higher education goals.

“The state and the country have a huge obligation to Native American communities,” Preciado said. “If you look at the rates of poverty and the kind of social conditions that are happening on reservations and in tribal communities across the state and the country, we know that education is a solution to a lot of these issues, but there has not been a significant, tangible significant investment in Native American education at a higher education level.”

According to the university, serving Arizona’s Tribal Nations and students is a key part of the university’s strategic plan, and is central to the plan’s Arizona Advantage pillar, which highlights the university’s role as a land-grant institution.

“The University of Arizona is committed to recognizing and acknowledging the history endured by Native American communities,” said Kasey Urquídez, University of Arizona’s vice president of enrollment management and dean of undergraduate admissions, in a press release.

“We are committed to promoting access and success for Indigenous students,” she added. “This program is part of our continual commitment to serve our Indigenous Wildcats.”

Preciado said that by the university offering free tuition to Indigenous students in Arizona, they stand up and begin to repair the legacy of universities as land grabbing institutions.

The University of Arizona is a land-grant university, meaning it’s one of many institutions across the country to receive land grants from the Morrill Act, a law signed in 1862 that sought to provide a “liberal, practical education” for the working class.

Fifty two modern land-grant universities received land grants traceable to the Morrill Act, according to an investigation done by HighCountry News.

“The United States took the land that supplied the grants from nearly 250 tribal nations, through 162 treaties or seizures,” the investigation reported. “Land-grant universities were built not just on Indigenous land, but with Indigenous land.”

The University of Arizona’s main campus is based in Tucson, which is the original homelands of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Tohono O’odham Nation.

“It’s a significant step to take to move beyond land acknowledgments,” Preciado said, and the university is showing that it values Indigenous communities and people.

This move can be seen as more restorative rather than performative, she added because more often than not, Indigenous communities have to experience performative land acknowledgments.

“This is a really big step, big movement from the university,” Preciado said, because Indigenous students need access to these types of resources everywhere.

“When we talk about valuing tribal communities, we mean it, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is,” she said. “We implore universities across the country to make this commitment to Native students.”

For students to be eligible for the ANS grant, they must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and provide tribal identification.

Native American tribes’ federal legal status allows universities to administer scholarships and grants to tribal members, the university said. More than 400 students enrolled at the University of Arizona last year that meet the criteria for the new program.

But the program does leave out non-traditional students, such as Indigenous undergrad students taking courses online or taking courses at the main campus on a part-time or less than part-time basis.

Levi Esquerra, the University of Arizona’s senior vice president for Native American advancement and tribal engagement, said the ANS program may later expand to graduate students, University of Arizona Online students, and students at other campuses. The university will also look to potential donor support to help fund the program.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez applauded the new program, saying that it will open doors for more Indigenous students.

“This is a wonderful initiative for our young people and the University of Arizona. It not only opens doors for Native Americans to pursue higher education, but it will also add to the cultural and academic diversity of the university,” Nez said in a statement to the Mirror. “We have many bright and intelligent Navajo people who are eager to earn a degree but often lack the financial resources to do so.”

Nez said that Ribbons recently visited Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capital, and they had the chance to have a conversation about different ways they could support Navajo students.

“I’m proud of the University of Arizona for taking this big step forward and I hope to see other universities follow suit,” he added.

For a full breakdown of the application process, visit the University of Arizona’s financial aid website.

 

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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