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First-year students jump at NAU, including a record number of Indigenous students

By: - September 5, 2023 10:55 am

Photo via Northern Arizona University | Instagram

As Arizona’s three universities welcomed students back for the school year last month, Northern Arizona University saw the largest number of first-year Arizona resident students in its history, including an influx of first-time Indigenous students.

NAU had a 47% increase in new Indigenous students this fall semester, bringing NAU’s total Indigenous student enrollment to an “all-time high point,” according to the university.

“We’re thrilled that we have the largest number ever of Native American students enrolled at NAU in our 124-year history,” NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera told the Arizona Mirror.


Rivera said the increase of Indigenous students from the previous year is fantastic, and the school attributes the influx of enrollment to its Access2Excelence program and the long tradition that NAU has in serving Indigenous students and communities.

NAU’s Access2Excellence (A2E) tuition program, which launched this semester, ensures full tuition coverage for Arizona residents whose family annual income is $65,000 or below or who are members of Arizona’s 22 federally-recognized tribal nations.

The A2E program has significantly increased new Arizona-resident first-year students and transfer students at NAU, the university stated, and nearly half of Arizona resident students who applied for financial aid at NAU are eligible for A2E.

“When we see a dramatic increase in our enrollment this way, it’s certainly a reason for celebration,” Rivera said. But, he added, it also provides perspective on NAU’s additional responsibility for their students. 

Rivera said NAU exceeded its enrollment goals this fall, and the school is committed to ensuring that it provides access and support for its students to succeed.

Some of the help for Indigenous students comes from the support provided by NAU’s Department of Indigenous Student Success. 

Director Sharon Singer Doctor said one of the reasons students and their families may gravitate to NAU is the university’s location.

For some Indigenous students attending NAU, Doctor said it keeps them close to home and allows them to stay connected.

Doctor has worked at NAU for nearly 30 years, and  in that time, she has seen Indigenous students come and go. But, she said,  that’s what makes it exciting. 

Doctor said she knows that the passionate work that the Department of Indigenous Student Success does helps Indigenous students succeed at NAU.

“That is what makes it really meaningful,” Doctor said.

NAU has implemented a few programs to help Indigenous students adapt to college life, including the Indigenous People Living Learning Community (IPLLC) and the Indigenous Peer Mentoring Program.

According to the university, nearly 50% of NAU’s students live in on-campus housing in Flagstaff, ranking NAU in the top 1% of universities in the nation for the number of students housed on campus.

Helping with on-campus housing is important, and through the IPLLC, the Department of Indigenous Student Success helps Indigenous students stay connected on campus.

Doctor said that IPLLC resulted from Indigenous students living on campus who wanted to have space unique to their needs and that allows them to connect with other Indigenous students living on campus. 

The IPLLC launched in Fall 2022, and it is a housing area on campus that allows Indigenous students to live together while surrounded by traditional and contemporary aspects of Indigenous life. It houses about 100 students.

Another significant program is the Indigenous Peer Mentoring Program. Doctor said the program has been set up at NAU for many years, and it currently has 11 Indigenous students serving as mentors.

Doctor said the mentors have already connected with several Indigenous students on campus during the first week of classes in August, and it’s great seeing students joining early in the semester.

“We have unique programs that cater to support our students to success,” Doctor said. “We provide guidance and advocacy services and so we work with a lot of partners.”

Top majors for new undergraduate students include health-related fields, education and teacher preparation programs, and degrees in high-demand areas such as computer science, engineering and business.

Doctor said the department partners with departments across NAU to ensure that they are helping Indigenous students achieve their academic goals. 

“If we don’t know the answer, we definitely know who to reach to support our students,” she added.


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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.