3/4/2014 9:51:00 AM Native American students feel at home at NAU with help of Cultural Center
Chalsea Holiday is a student worker at the Native American Cultural Center at Northern Arizona University. The center provided a support system for Native American students at the school. Photo/Loretta Yerian
Katherine Frank, director of the Native American Cultural Center at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Ariz. and Catherine Talakte, director of Native American Student Services at NAU, stand outside the Cultural Center. Photo/Loretta Yerian
Loretta Yerian Navajo-Hopi Observer
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A total of 26,000 students attend Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Ariz. Native Americans make up 5 percent of that population, representing 95 tribes from across the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii.
With 1,400 Native American students attending NAU, one might wonder how these students transition into being students on a college campus - an environment that could be a far cry from one they are more accustomed to.
NAU has welcomed the Native population with open arms and has embraced them as their own. One way the university does this is through the Native American Cultural Center (NACC), located in the heart of the NAU campus. Officials with NACC had several goals in mind when they opened the center's doors to students in October 2011. They wanted to provide students not only with academic support, financial help, and career planning, but also with a place where the students would feel free to embrace and practice their cultural heritage and to interact with fellow students.
"The Native American population is so diverse, part of the goal here is to help educate and to alleviate stereotypes and to develop an appreciation of cultures," said Catherine Talakte, director of Native American Student Services. While NACC. is aimed toward. Native students, the center has an open door policy, desires to be culturally diverse and always extends their hospitality to all.
Chalsea Holiday, a senior at NAU, has worked at NACC for two years. Holiday, originally from Kayenta, Ariz. and majoring in Applied Indigenous Studies, explained that the center has been a big part of her campus life.
"I enjoy working here, I am able to network and also get to see my friends every day," said Holiday. "I get time to study and have helped out with a lot of events held here."
Homesick students in need of a familiar environment feel welcome at NACC.
"The center provides the students and the Native community that comes to Flagstaff a central meeting place. For the students it is a place that is a home away from home. That was the idea behind the cultural center," said Kathleen Frank, director of NACC. "The university may not be that big, but when you come from a Native community sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. So we wanted a place for students to come where they could feel like they are welcome."
The center features a computer lab, study room and free printing for as many as 10 pages per day.
"I think that the center really helps, from signing up for your first class to figuring out financial aid," said Holiday.
A number of people influenced the design and birth of the center. Focus groups consisting of alumni, faculty, students, tribal leaders, and community members all took part in conceptualizing the details of the architecture and planning the center.
"There were several very important designs for the building. It was constructed in a circular fashion so there are no corners throughout the building. Our main entrance faces the east, which is important in many homes and traditional events," Frank said. "Another thing we wanted was to have a kitchen, since hospitality is a big part of Native cultures. We always have coffee and beverages available to students."
The center boasts three conference rooms, a computer lab, a study room, a full kitchen, offices for Native American Student Services and an events hall with occupancy for as many as 217 people. The hall, called The Gathering Room, has played host to receptions, conferences, ceremonies, Navajo tribal sessions and even concerts.
Another unique room in the building is the Story Room. This room allows students a place to practice their traditional ceremonies or use as a venue for any type of religious belief that they might practice.
"The Story Room is open to anyone, it is really for whatever the student's needs are," said Frank.
The center's outreach program begins when freshmen first start at NAU, but the outreach does not stop with the freshman class. NACC provides upperclassmen encouragement and guidance throughout their college career. During the month of March, the center puts on career planning workshops that are open to all. NACC also offers peer mentoring from upperclassmen carefully selected to provide one on one mentoring to their fellow students on how to be successful.
NACC is focused on meeting the needs of the students and providing them with all the tools they need to succeed in their future.
"One question people have is, 'Has it worked?'" Talakte said. "We can clearly say that not only with our program, but with support services and other Native programs, the first year retention for first semester students in 1994 was at 48 percent and now we are at 60 percent this year. We still have a long way to go, but it's been a great journey to keep our students in school and through to graduation."