The hurdles Native American teenagers face in and out of school are daunting. College Horizons, a small organization based in New Mexico, has proven they're not insurmountable.
Every year, the group sponsors week-long retreats on college campuses for teenagers from some of the more than 500 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S.
One of those retreats was at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., where 85 students gathered along with dozens of admissions officers from some of the nation's most selective universities.
The week kicked off with a boisterous rendition of the College Horizons motto: "College pride, Native pride!" Then, one by one, students stood to say who they are and where they're from:
"I'm part of the Eagle and Fox clan ... "
"I'm from the Cheyenne River in South Dakota ... I am a descendant of Lakota Chief Red Horse ... "
"I'm a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma."
Beyond that shared heritage, another thing they all had in common? They're outstanding students.
Many are athletes, artists and musicians. Precisely the kind of students that top-tier colleges should be lining up to recruit. And yet, most of them are not on anybody's radar.
"We're talking about a population that is so under-represented and under-served," says Carmen Lopez, the head of College Horizons.
Lopez is Navajo and a graduate of Harvard University and Dartmouth College. She says native students are often overlooked because they're isolated. It's likely that no one in their families has gone to college. Sometimes, the schools in their communities are too poor, too under-staffed to offer meaningful advice or counseling about college. Many of these students said they had little or no access to college prep or Advanced Placement courses in high school.
This puts Native students at a huge disadvantage, says Lopez. Which is why she invites admissions officers to these retreats: "I want colleges to recognize that."
She says something happens when you sit face-to-face with these kids and listen: You hear powerful and painful — yet uplifting — stories. Like the one a tall slender Navajo girl named Martinique shared during a group discussion here:
"When I was born, my mom couldn't take care of me at all, so she just put me up for adoption. I guess I was unwanted," says Martinique, holding back tears.
The only people who wanted her, she adds, were her grandparents: "My grandma and grandpa always told me that even if you had a bad past you can make it better. So having this past made me stronger."
For a young man named Theo, 17, it's the way Native Americans are perceived that hurts. He lives in Los Angeles, but says his roots are in Alaska.
"In Alaska and Rampart, my tribe, there is a lot of trauma, cycles of alcoholism and abuse and suicide." This is the stereotype people think of when they think of Alaska natives, says Theo. "Sadly some of it is true."
But Theo is at this retreat to help change that perception. Jordan, a Pueblo Indian from New Mexico, says his parents wanted the best education for him. So they sent him to a private school in Albuquerque. He says it's like living in two worlds.
"I kind of grew up in a cultural dilemma. Living in the city I guess I was like Indian on the weekends, city kid on weekdays.
"I'm only 6.25 percent native Hawaiian," explains Malie, 17. "A lot of people have called me an impostor: a person pretending to be Hawaiian. [To them] I am barely anything."
Many Native students say their identity can be a blessing, and a burden. That's why these retreats are important, says College Horizons' Carmen Lopez.
"I'm prepping them for the blows they're going to take when they arrive on their college campuses," she explains. "So that when those 'cowboy and Indian' parties at sororities and fraternities happen; when professors call out students to speak on behalf of all Native nations; I hope it's more of a sting rather than a punch in the gut."
Over the four days of workshops, lectures and long meetings, students have a chance to meet with college reps from schools like Stanford, Yale, Brown, Cal Tech, MIT and Duke.
They're given advice on applications, and help with things like scholarships and financial aid.
And, though they've been told they shouldn't stress out about their SAT or ACT scores, these kids know that everything does boil down to GPA, class rank and test scores.
The facts are helpful — but for many of these young people, this retreat has been a re-affirmation of identity and purpose. They look and sound confident. On the very last day, one group of students puts up a poster in bold letters — Be as tough as the land that made you.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's rare to see Native American students on college campuses. They make up less than 1 percent of students nationwide, and they often struggle once they arrive. Recent research suggests half of them fail to graduate.
Claudio Sanchez of the NPR Ed team visited a program that has helped native students beat those odds. It starts way before they arrive on campus.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The journey for these teenagers begins in earnest at a five-day retreat run by College Horizons, this one hosted by Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: College pride, native pride (clapping). College pride, native pride (clapping).
SANCHEZ: College Horizon's motto - college pride, native pride - fills the cavernous room. Admissions officers from top-tier colleges join in. Then one by one, 85 students introduce themselves.
MIA RED HORSE: (Through interpreter) Hi, my name is Mia Red Horse. I'm from the Cheyenne River.
WYATT JEWETT: I shake your hand with a good heart. My name is Wyatt Jewett.
SHANE SCRAPER: My name is Shane Scraper. I come from Willow Canyon High School all the way in Surprise, Ariz.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
SANCHEZ: It's a diverse bunch from some of the 565 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. What these students have in common is that they all excel academically. Many are straight-A students.
Now, you'd think that colleges would be lining up to recruit and enroll these kids. And yet even the brightest among them were not on anybody's radar.
CARMEN LOPEZ: We're talking about a population that is so under-represented and so underserved. I'm Carmen Lopez, executive director of College Horizons, and I'm a citizen of the Navajo Nation.
SANCHEZ: Lopez, a graduate of Harvard and Dartmouth College, says these native students are overlooked because they're isolated. Their schools are too poor, too understaffed to offer them any meaningful advice or counseling about college. Many have had little or no access to college prep or advanced placement courses. Of course, Lopez says, this puts native students at a huge disadvantage, which is why she invites admissions officers to these retreats.
LOPEZ: I want colleges to recognize that in their story and in what they've presented academically - because this is the student that's going to do well in your college because they've already had so much thrown at them.
SANCHEZ: Lopez says something happens when you sit face-to-face with native students and hear their stories - powerful, painful and yet uplifting stories, like the one a Navajo girl named Martinique shared with me and a few other students.
MARTINIQUE: When I was born, my mom - she couldn't take care of me at all, so she just put me up for adoption, like, a couple of days after I was born. I guess I was unwanted.
SANCHEZ: The only people who wanted her, says Martinique, were her grandparents.
MARTINIQUE: And my grandma and grandpa - they always told me that even though you have a bad past, you can make it better. So having this past made me stronger.
LOPEZ: But the way Native Americans are perceived hurts, says Theo Velaise, 17. Although he lives in Los Angeles, his roots are in Alaska.
THEO VELAISE: Yes, in Alaska and, you know, in Rampart, my tribe, there is a lot of, you know, trauma. And there is cycles of alcoholism and abuse and suicide. This is the stereotype that people think of when they think of, you know, Alaskan natives. And sadly, some of it is true. You know, and that's why I'm here, you know, so I can change this to kind of end one cycle and begin another.
SANCHEZ: Jordan Lesansee, a Pueblo Indian from New Mexico says his parents wanted the best education for him, so they sent him to a private school in Albuquerque.
JORDAN LESANSEE: I kind of grew up in, like, a cultural dilemma. Living in the city I guess I was, like, Indian on the weekends, city kid on the weekdays.
SANCHEZ: For 17-year-old Malie Sarsona, the question is, is she native enough?
MALIE SARSONA: I'm only 6.25 percent Native Hawaiian. And a lot of people have called me an imposter, that person who is pretending to be Hawaiian. I am barely anything.
SANCHEZ: For native students, identity can either be a blessing or a burden. In some ways, that's what this five-day retreat is really all about.
LOPEZ: I'm prepping them for the blows that they're going to take when they arrive to their college campuses.
SANCHEZ: Again, Carmen Lopez, head of College Horizons.
LOPEZ: So that when those cowboy and Indian parties at our sorority and fraternities happen, when professors call out a student to speak on behalf of all Native Nations, I hope that it's more of a sting than such a punch in the gut.
(SOUNDBITE OF NATIVE AMERICAN MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).
SANCHEZ: After three days of workshops, lectures and long, long meetings, students have started rehearsing their presentations scheduled for the final day. It's one of the highlights of the program - a celebration of native culture. Choreographing this native dance is Mason Panuelo.
MASON PANUELO: And I am a Mohawk from Akwesasne, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF NATIVE AMERICAN MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).
PANUELO: The music that we were listening to - it's like a social dance where we bring everyone together and just dance for long periods of time.
SANCHEZ: After practice, kids go back to their favorite dance music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEAH!")
LUDACRIS: ...But a freak in the bed to say...
USHER: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah - shorty got down low and said come and get me. Yeah, yeah, yeah - I got so caught up I forgot she told me, yeah, yeah yeah.
SANCHEZ: The next morning, it's back to the business at hand - a lecture about what college admissions officials say they look for and care less about.
ALIE LEVY: We know, and we will remind you a million times. Your test score is not an indicator of your academic potential or ability, so do not get fixated on that.
SANCHEZ: That's Allie Levey, a former high school guidance counselor and now a college admissions officer. His message - you are not a number. Still, every day during this retreat, students are reminded that Stanford, Yale, Brown, Bowdoin, Caltech, MIT and Duke do look at numbers - GPA, class rank, SAT and ACT scores.
But you can tell that the last few days have been about much, much more than filling out college applications and financial aid forms. For many of these students, it's been a reaffirmation of identity and purpose. Before they say goodbye, one group of students puts up a poster that reads, be as tough as the land that made you.
The head of College Horizons, Carmen Lopez, tells students to ask themselves three questions before they leave.
LOPEZ: What are your fears about going to college? How will you overcome those fears? What will you bring to your college campus as a Native student?
SANCHEZ: Lopez hopes that when they answer these questions, they'll know if they're ready. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.