Nevada college tuition waiver program for Native Americans is off to a promising start

Nevada college tuition waiver program for Native Americans is off to a promising start

Brian Melendez can trace his family history to a camp on the land where the Reynolds School of Journalism now stands, before they were forced out to make way for the old Mackey Stadium.

“Not too long ago, my great-great-grandmother was born where the football statue currently stands at the University of Nevada, Reno. That hillside was once the traditional homes of our people,” said Melendez, a citizen of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who advocated for years to de-school Native Americans.

Building Nevada’s only land-grant university required the removal of tribes from their homelands and gave the university the right to finance itself through the sale of those unclaimed lands—a right it holds to this day.

UNR is also a bastion for accredited teaching of the Northern Paiute language — a language that Nevada tribes are fighting to preserve. The opportunity to achieve fluency in the language of the original peoples of the states is a particular attraction for tribal citizens attending the university.

Paiute culture and language have been studied by academics at Nevada universities since the institutions were established, and countless graduate degrees awarded to nontribal students have resulted from the use and study of cultural materials housed at Nevada universities.

However, less than 1% of tribal citizens attend college in Nevada, let alone graduate school, tribal leadership says. One of the biggest obstacles is the rising cost of higher education.

So when the Nevada Legislature passed a law in late spring 2021 that prohibited the Nevada System of Higher Education from paying tuition for any Native American student who belongs to a federally recognized tribe in Nevada or a descendant of an enrolled member, the tribes and the students rejoiced.

Native graduate students at UNR said a phrase that sums up their view of higher education: While the bill “cannot decolonize the academy,” they will work to “indigenize the academy.”

The passage of the bill left just a few months for state colleges and universities to implement the program and give Native American students the say on the waiver in time for the 2021-2022 school year. During the first school year of implementation, $457,449 in tuition and fees was waived for 140 students, according to the Nevada System of Higher Education.

“The only reason I can go to university is because of this waiver…And that’s because I’m local. It makes me feel good about who I am.”

– Truckee Meadows Community College student Alyssa Sweet

Since October, 73 students have taken advantage of the waiver at UNR alone, accounting for about $330,000 in waived tuition this year. For the 2022-23 academic year, 50 more students have applied for waivers at UNR, said Daphne Emm Hooper, the school’s director of Indigenous Relations.

Since the waiver was passed, UNR has seen a 13% increase in Native American students and a 3% increase in graduate students.

“Part of it is that we’re seeing more graduate students coming in,” Hooper said “That created access to additional funding. Graduate students don’t have access to as much financial aid. The waiver applies to graduate courses, I think that’s why we’re seeing more local students seeking advanced degrees.”

‘It’s been life-changing’

Alyssa Sweet, 20, a descendant of the Lovelock Paiute tribe, is still an undergraduate at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. Last year, 24 students at the community college benefited from tuition waivers totaling about $30,000 in waived fees.

Next semester, Sweet is transferring to UNR now that she has more stable funding for her educational goals of becoming an elementary school teacher.

“The only reason I’m able to go to college is because of this waiver,” Sweet said. “And that’s because I’m local. It makes me feel good about who I am.”

Before the tuition waiver, Sweet could only afford to attend about two classes a semester at Truckee Meadows Community College, a story she has seen repeated by other local students.

“Without the fee waiver, I honestly would have had to drop out this semester. I’ve had a lot of financial problems and I can’t count on most help,” Sweet said. “It’s been life-changing for me just because I can count on something else, something that I know is going to be there.”

The process of confirming Sweet’s eligibility with her family’s tribal records has been complicated, she said. The lack of communication and coordination between higher education and tribes has made it difficult to navigate waiver requests. However, she says the process led her to reconnect with the Lovelock Paiute Tribe, and she has taken steps to register as a tribal citizen.

“I think it’s really important that the school administration is knowledgeable and knows how to help us with it or always have someone we can ask. I think there should be more resources,” Sweet said.

Nevada higher education administrators agree that as awareness of the fee waiver grows, so will the number of local students applying.

More than one NSHE institution has added additional staff and programs to provide full support for Native American students since the tuition waiver was enacted.

Truckee Meadows Community College Native American student advocate Delina Trottier is one of those new hires. Its prevalence was the reason Sweet first learned about the tuition waiver.

“Since August, I’ve been reaching out to the Native American student population and encouraging them to look at the waiver and see if they meet the requirements or if they need any help applying,” Trottier said.

She is also a student at the University of Nevada, Reno and a citizen of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. But for the past 10 years it has been called home to Pyramid Lake in Nevada.

“One day my daughter will use this waiver,” Trottier said.

Many local students had some awareness of the tuition waiver through their social networks, but didn’t know where to start or how to apply, Trottier said. Soon she was getting steady emails from students asking for guidance.

“I was a student at Truckee Meadows and they didn’t have this position,” Trottier said. “I was kind of shy and shy to ask for help even when I needed it. I’m trying to be the person I needed to be when I went to TMCC,” Trottier said.

Connecting with tribal leaders and hosting informational meetings and tours with high school students has helped bridge a gap between the tribes and the community college, Trottier said.

“There’s a lot of interest from tribes,” Trottier said.

Karin Hilgersom, president of Truckee Meadows Community College, said she hopes to grow the program and connect with more tribal nations through public higher education.

“This important fee waiver also began a series of events over the past year that strengthened our relationships with tribes and their representatives. In May 2022, I was honored to award Arlan Melendez, Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and TMCC alumnus, with our President’s Medal,” said Hilgersom. “We are proud of these efforts and are committed to serving all students with accessible and affordable educational opportunities.”

Since December, 16 students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas have taken advantage of the free tuition waiver. Most of these students are students. Zack Goodwin, UNLV’s executive director of financial aid and scholarships, said he suspects the waiver will encourage more of those same students and others across Nevada to eventually apply to more expensive graduate programs.

“We had more people apply for him than we had his rookie year,” Goodwin said. “I think the word is too vague at this point.”

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