The Lagging Class

    The difference between living on a reservation and attending UCSD goes beyond issues of money and a lack of opportunities; rather, strong familial and reservation obligations, compounded by an overall lack of awareness, help to explain the severely low numbers of American Indians at UC campuses.

    Will Parson/Guardian
    UCSD alumna Perse Hooper is one of the few American Indian students who has attended a UC school.

    UCSD’s undergraduate profile last fall showed 89 American Indian students — less than 1 percent of the total student body, totaling 20,679. The figure hasn’t significantly changed over the past five years. After the passage of Proposition 209, the initiative that effectively eliminated affirmative action in California public schools, the admissions rate for American Indians fell from 74.5 percent of applicants to 36.1 percent from 1997 to 1998 alone.

    Otherwise, the percentage of enrollment and admissions when it comes to American Indians has been stagnant, contrasting with an 18 percent rise in overall campus enrollment figures and 32 percent increase in total UCSD admissions.

    “”It’s so complex,”” said Perse Hooper, an American Indian UCSD alumna from the class of 2004. “”If you spend a day here and see our kids, and see what level they’re at, and see all of the challenges they face, it’s not a one-answer [explanation].””

    Hooper grew up on reservations in Nevada before moving to the San Pasqual Reservation in San Diego’s East County, where Lorraine and Natalia Orosco, sisters and UCSD alumnae, have spent their entire lives.

    “”Honestly, I felt that I was steered away from college,”” Lorraine Orosco said, explaining that she felt discouraged for many different reasons, including high school counselors who did not promote college and larger contemporary societal and historical issues; the Orosco sisters are familiar with the shortfalls of the common American Indian community, with waning support from parents and emotional issues that include substance abuse.

    With working parents, Natalia Orosco remembered being self-motivated in academics, since her parents weren’t around to encourage her.

    She had a role model — her older sister Lorraine, who had gone to UCSD and was her emotional support system — encouraging her to go to summer programs on college campuses.

    “”One major theme is a lack of awareness of what education can really do for them — what value it has for them,”” Lorraine Orosco said.

    The native history plays a significant role in that theme.

    “”We’ve been here for thousands and thousands of years, and for us, 200 years isn’t that long ago,”” Hooper said.

    Children on the reservation know their tribe’s history — even if it’s just an innate feeling that they get from their families — and according to Lorraine Orosco, it’s no wonder they reject what they’re taught in school: Textbooks portray only one side of history

    “”It’s a love-hate relationship with education, and our kids struggle with it,”” she said.

    Both Hooper and Lorraine Orosco went to community college before attending UCSD, where they learned about and were encouraged to attend UCSD — and closed the gap between their high school educations and what college demanded of them.

    Hooper remembers taking sociology courses at UCSD, where students would deny the presence of racial inequality in the school system.

    Her peers, according to Hooper, said underrepresented students simply hadn’t taken advantage of available opportunities. But for Lorraine Orosco, the situation is hardly that simple. Critical reading skills, she said, were not taught in her high school at all, which most of the reservation’s teenagers attend. In addition, only a small proportion of students went and continue to go to after-school programs with tutors — assuming that they’re available.

    And if college itself is a foreign idea, then the SAT, ACT and application fees alone are even more to handle, according to Hooper.

    Hooper said that it is a common misconception to think that money for college is handed to American Indians.

    “”I grew up and people would tell me, ‘Oh, you’re Indian? Wow, you’re going to get all this money when you turn 18, and your school’s going to be paid for,'”” Hooper said. “”We don’t have anything more than anybody else.””

    Lorraine Orosco had spent so much time researching scholarships that “”financial aid was like my other class.””

    Scholarships did not come easily, and the maximum amount of any of them received in a single year was $2,500. The majority of their financial aid came in the form of Pell Grants, Cal Grants, Grants-in-Aid and UCSD’s Opportunity Grant.

    But money was not the only issue after arriving at UCSD. Adjustment to a completely different lifestyle away from the intimate setting of the reservation made transition difficult.

    “”You’re walking around with thousands and thousands of people, and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ I would go days and not talk to anybody,”” Lorraine Orosco said. “”I would take [what I learned in class] and go home to my family where I felt safe in my community and in my reservation.””

    But balancing schoolwork and community involvement proved difficult, she said, when familial support for education was lacking.

    “”Nobody understood what I was missing,”” Lorraine Orosco said. “”It was hard, but I wouldn’t trade it at all.””

    All three had been a part of the Native American Student Alliance as undergraduates, and emphasized the importance of having a support network of other students who have the same ethnic background, have experienced the same cultural differences and can talk about all pressures they constantly face.

    Natalia Orosco continued to work at the reservation throughout college to keep her ties with the community strong. But after completing graduate school and returning to the reservation, she said it took time to regain everyone’s trust. She was returning as a professional, not just as a “”kid from the res,”” as all of the other high school graduates were known.

    Today, Hooper and Lorraine and Natalia Orosco work for the education department on the reservation, organizing after-school tutoring, cultural programs and a preschool and building the gateway to college they could not enjoy themselves.

    “”I want to see some of these students enjoy [learning], to see who they want to be, to feel empowered,”” Lorraine Orosco said.

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