Native American students are underrepresented in higher education, typically making up only about one percent of all students enrolled and having one of the highest rates of degree non-completion.
Central Michigan University seniors Alexis Syrette and Hannah Bartol hope their influence will help 26 Michigan middle and high school students see a more successful future for themselves.
As counselors at CMU's annual North American Indigenous Summer Enrichment Camp, Syrette, a social work major, and Bartol, a senior in health administration, partnered with four other CMU students to share a college experience infused with Native American culture.
Exploring campus and culture
During the five-day camp, students heard from admissions counselors, explored academic programs and took personality tests to help them identify hidden skills and talents.
Members of the CMU women’s basketball team join the campers for fun on the court at McGuirk Arena.
Campus tours, meals in residential restaurants and movie nights in residence halls gave a taste of college life. Campers played a little basketball with the women's basketball team and completed a service project with the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center.
But there was also a huge emphasis on Native American life. The students attended workshops on Anishinabe culture, visited the Ziibiwing Center, viewed documentaries, heard from guest speakers from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and even took a canoe trip with members of the tribe.
“My job is to help them picture themselves graduating from high school and taking the next step in their journey.” — Alexis Syrette
Friends like me
The camp is Kebah Wilson's only opportunity to engage with others who share her heritage. The 10th-grader from Grand Haven, Michigan, said she enjoys the chance to meet other Native American students.
She's attended camp every year for four years with her older sister, Ayebah, who will enter CMU as a freshman this fall. Wilson plans to follow in her sister's footsteps and hopes to study photojournalism. She'd like to work with the office of Native American Programs, just like her camp counselors.
Bartol said working with students like Wilson is what keeps her coming back year after year.
"I love seeing them breathe a little easier, knowing they're surrounded by people who understand where they're coming from. I'm a role model, a teacher, a friend, a coach, a mentor and counselor."
Bartol has been working as head counselor for the camp since her sophomore year at CMU.
Growing up on a reservation in the Upper Peninsula, she was rarely exposed to the idea of higher education at her small tribal school. She wished she'd had a few more role models, like her fellow NAISEC counselors, to guide her path.
"I am walking in two different worlds. I have the traditions and comforts of my culture at home on the reservation, and this modern changing campus of CMU. The culture shock was huge for me, and it can be scary for these young students to consider. I want to show them it's possible, that they can do it."
Working with NAISEC has proven to be excellent career training for both Bartol and Syrette.
Syrette hopes to pursue a career working with Native American youth as a social worker. The intensive camp experience allows her to practice her listening and advising skills.
"My job is to help them picture themselves graduating from high school and taking the next step in their journey," she said. "I want them to see me as someone who can understand and relate."
Julie Cunningham, director of the Center for Excellence in STEM Education, helps the students explore science with Play-Doh.
Bartol plans to work in public health education on a reservation. She developed a workshop for camp staff and students focused on diabetes prevention and care.
She's also gained management and leadership experience as head counselor, developing the daily agenda, recruiting speakers, arranging logistics, working with students' families and leading her fellow counselors.
"This has made me a much better leader. I've had to learn how to make quick decisions, solve problems creatively. I've worked with professors and staff and students. I've helped students resolve conflict. All things that will look really good on my resume."