PHOENIX -- Some tribal leaders and advocates in Arizona's Native American communities are excited about a plan to offer undergraduates a degree in the University of Arizona's internationally recognized American Indian studies program.
The degree would be offered at the UA in 2009, provided that state lawmakers approve funding in Gov. Janet Napolitano's 2007 budget.
Under her proposal, the UA would receive $1.5 million for four initiatives reaching out to Native American communities. The other initiatives included in Napolitano's proposal are: programs to strengthen tribal leadership: a web-based resource for distance learning; and expansion of research tools for communities.
The amount authorized by the governor was only half of the $3 million that was originally requested by the UA.
The bachelor's degree is an extension of an existing program in American Indian studies, in which students can earn an undergraduate minor, a master of arts degree, or a doctorate.
Rep. Albert Tom, D-Chambers, whose District 2 includes the Navajo Nation, said the proposed funding would be an asset to Native Americans in Arizona.
"The key word is investment," Tom said. "A lot of students are education-hungry (in his district) and there is nowhere to turn."
Tom said his community needs more college-trained workers. For example, he said, the health care field has a shortage of nurses, particularly in the rural areas.
Expanding the UA program to include an undergraduate degree could be a boon to Native American students who want to pursue more education, said Fred Ferreira, education director for the San Carlos Apache tribe.
Ferreira said he thought the program would encourage Native Americans to enroll in the Arizona university system and a new undergraduate major could become a natural destination for graduates from Dine College in northern Arizona.
The college, in Tsaile, is the first tribally controlled college. The school offers two-year degrees and has courses in American Indian studies.
Increased enrollment for Native Americans is not the only benefit that would come from the broadening the UA program, he said; the return of those students to their communities also would help the tribe.
"It definitely has an impact; especially if they come back to work with the tribe" said Ferreira.
Peterson Zah, a board member of the Native Nations Institute and former President of the Navajo Nation, also sees adding a bachelor's degree in American Indian studies at the UA as a way to increase Native American enrollment in the state's higher education system.
Zah, who went to work at ASU in 1996 to increase Native American enrollment, said the dedication of resources for Native American funding "would do wonders."
Zah said building a similar program at ASU attracted new students and increased enrollment there. He said the program started out small with 15 to 20 students in 1999 and has grown to 74 Native Americans in the program.
Karen Francis-Begay, director of Native American Student Affairs at the University of Arizona, said the enrollment of Native Americans hovers around 2 percent of total enrollment. Last year, enrollment was 777 students and in 2004 the number was 763.
Enrollment has "not grown by leaps and bounds" she said, but it has been slowly improving at the University of Arizona.
(Joe Ferguson is the Don Bolles Fellow in the University of Arizona Journalism Department. He is spending spring semester of his senior year covering rural and suburban issues at the state Legislature for the journalism department's Community News Service.)
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