Like many Native American students, Laura Gonzales-Macias was the first in her family to attend college.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Gonzales-Macias has ancestral roots to the Tarahumara of northern Mexico. Her parents encouraged her to pursue higher education, so she got her bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Guided by dreams of the desert, Gonzales-Macias continued her education at ASU, where she received a doctorate in educational psychology.
Now the associate director for American Indian Student Support Services at ASU, Gonzales-Macias works with current Native American ASU students, many of who are also the first in their families to attend college.
AISSS has established a “home away from home” on the third floor of Discovery Hall on the Tempe campus. The office is one of the reasons Gonzales-Macias said Native Americans are able to find success at the University.
“We are super mindful for them to feel at home, and ASU is here to ensure that they can be supported and be successful,” she said.
In the fall of 2005, ASU had just under 1,500 Native American students, but that number has grown to over 3,000, one of the largest populations of Native American college students in the country.
Alexis Rael, a fifth-year computer science student and member of the Navajo Nation, said she learned more about her culture after moving to ASU and getting involved with AISSS.
"I went to different events and I was able to meet other native students," Rael said. "I was able to learn more about my culture. I can now introduce myself in my native language, I know different stories and legends and I just know a lot more about my heritage."
She said knowledge of her heritage was hindered growing up because her mother was sent to a Native American boarding school at age four. These institutions were established to assimilate strip Native American children of their identities and assimilate them into what was considered proper, American culture.
Rael said that, without the support and events provided by ASU, she never would have learned so much about where her family comes from.
Official enrollment records released online by ASU put Native American enrollments at over 900 as of fall 2017, but according to Gonzales-Macias and Jacob Moore, associate vice president of ASU Tribal Relations, these numbers are naturally low.
In an email statement, Moore said that ASU tracks “American Indian” students and students who identify as “two or more races” separately even though many students in the “two or more” category are part-Native American.
Gonzales-Macias added that adjustments to the 2010 U.S. Census have also thrown off enrollment estimates because the census counted students who identified as both Hispanic and Native American as solely Hispanic in official records.
Nationally, Native American students have among the lowest college attendance rates of any demographic.
Only 10 percent of Native American individuals obtain bachelor's degrees and 17 percent obtain associate's degrees, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.
Moore said current and prospective Native American college students face several obstacles.
“When you come from a community that isn’t mainstream, it’s quite a challenge to go through that culture shock of college life,” Moore said. “Also, increase in tuition is a challenge for anybody, but it’s particularly difficult if you come from communities with high levels of poverty. It does require more work on the scholarship side just to afford college.”
Gonzales-Macias said that finances are a large obstacle keeping Native American students from going to and staying in school. She said that, despite popular belief, many American Indian students do not receive extra funding from their respective tribes in order to attend college.
Matthew Makomenaw, college pathways administrator for the American Indian College Fund, said that along with financial issues, cultural differences and academic standards make many American Indian students believe that college isn’t possible for them.
“We’ve got to start telling Native youth that they actually can go to college and that we will support them throughout that process,” Makomenaw said.
He said belief in both the students themselves and the people who work with them are important when it comes to encouraging Native American youth to pursue higher education.
“There are a lot of students that are getting left behind that have the potential to go to college, and we just need to give them the access and resources to help them get to college,” Makomenaw said.
Yet, even with these obstacles, ASU’s Native American population continues to grow.
Moore said that in addition to the services provided by AISSS, there are four major recruitment events each year along with regular efforts to encourage Native American students to attend college.
One of these events is the Tribal Nations Tour, a road show that travels to various American Indian communities to showcase what ASU has to offer. Current Native American students, as well as some Sun Devil athletes, participate on the tour.
Gonzales-Macias said that AISSS, and ASU as a whole, wants Native American students to be well-rounded in “every sense: physically, mentally, spiritually and academically.”
“Education is a means for American Indian youth to gain their voices and pave the way for others from their communities to be just as successful,” she said.