Central Wyoming College (CWC) faculty member Tarissa Spoonhunter is working to make Wyoming's only American Indian Studies associate degree into a practical program that her students can relate to.
"A lot of American Indian Studies programs are academic programs but they have no relevance to the reservation," she said.
Spoonhunter is changing how CWC supports its students. She brings in local community organizers and officials on the Wind River Reservation to talk about issues specific to the reservation. Spoonhunter had a University of Wyoming student sit in on one of her classes last year.
"She said, 'I'm paying thousands and thousands of dollars to the University of Wyoming, and I'm not learning how those issues work in my community. But sitting in this class one day, this is the stuff I need to know and this is the stuff I need to learn,'" Spoonhunter said.
Spoonhunter wants to make her lessons applicable to her students and for their lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
But that's difficult because often Native American students are kept out of higher education research because of how small the population is. It's hard to get data about the issue to describe the issue.
Last year, The Postsecondary National Policy Institute found that the number of Native American students enrolled in an undergraduate degree program has decreased by 8,500 over the past few years.
And it doesn't stop there as far as inequalities in higher-ed go.
Only 25 percent of Native Americans over the age of 25 have an associate degree or higher. That compares to 42 percent of non-Native students who do have such degrees.
Vice President of Student Affairs Cory Daly saids that graduation rates are up for Native students at CWCe. She said the research indicates that Native students are less likely to graduate if they don't feel welcome on campus.
"[There are] two ends. Bringing the family into the equation, [and] the other half of that is helping to make the college itself replicate that family feel," Daly said.
It makes it hard to replicate that feeling if there is no trust, especially since academic spaces have historically exploited Native people for research, something Daly recognizes.
"The challenge that we all recognize is the lack of trust and how do we build meaningful relationships," Daly said.
Half of the members of both Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes are under 18. And CWC wants to be ready to accommodate the wave of potential new students seeking degrees.
Eastern Shoshone tribal member Rory Tendore is the Native American student coordinator, and her position is to help connect Native students with resources on campus. She is excited for the future of higher ed where cultural and academic knowledge can work together.
"What we are learning is that this economic opportunity to serve our people is always in process," Tendore said. "We have the ability to bring our cultural knowledge into this academic realm. And that's something we haven't had the ability to do, not in my generation anyway."
Tendore's position is partly supported by a suite of federal grants. CWC is a Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution. This means that CWC has received federal funds to support the retention of Native students and give them the confidence to make it to graduation. Tendore also recognizes the importance of bringing in family relationships as a way to support the Native student.
"We are translating information to be able to relay that back to our families," Tendore said. "Not only our students, but to be able to have those productive conversations with the community with grandparents, with aunts and uncles,to develop that support team for each individual student."
Daly, the student affairs vice president, also wants to make the non-Native faculty better equipped to form relationships with Native students.
"We have worked really hard to educate more of the staff to do a better job of onboarding stuff and helping people build awareness and to build recognition and respect for some of the dynamics for some of the issues that our tribal students are dealing with," she said.
Daly said there's a lot of work to be done, but they are taking steps in the right direction.