by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
Brian Melendez can trace his family history back to an encampment on the land where the Reynolds School of Journalism now stands, before they were forcibly removed to make room for the old Mackey Stadium.
“Not too long ago, my great-great-grandmother gave birth where the University of Nevada, Reno football statue is currently located. That hillside was once our people’s traditional homes,” said Melendez, a citizen of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, who advocated for a Native American tuition waiver for years.
The construction of Nevada’s only land-grant university required the removal of tribes from their homelands and gave the university the right to fund itself through the sale of those unceded lands — a right it has to this day.
UNR is also a stronghold for the accredited teaching of the Northern Paiute language — a language tribes in Nevada are fighting to preserve. The opportunity to achieve fluency in the language of the states original peoples is a particular draw for tribal citizens attending the university.
Paiute culture and language has been studied by academics at Nevada universities since the institutions were established, and countless graduate degrees awarded to non-tribal students have resulted from the use and study of cultural materials housed in Nevada’s universities.
Still, less than 1% of tribal citizens attend college in Nevada, let alone graduate school, says tribal leadership. One of the largest barriers is the mounting cost of higher education.
So when the Nevada Legislature passed a law in late Spring 2021 prohibiting the Nevada System of Higher Education from charging tuition to any Native American student who belongs to a federally recognized tribe in Nevada or a descendant of an enrolled member, tribes and students rejoiced.
Native graduate students at UNR took to saying a phrase that summarized their point of view on higher education: While the bill “cannot decolonize the academy” they will work to “indigenize the academy.”
The timing of the bill’s passage left only a few months for the state’s colleges and universities to implement the program and get the word out to Native American students about the waiver in time for the 2021-2022 school year. During the first school year of implementation, $457,449 in tuition and fees were waived for 140 students, according to Nevada System of Higher Education.
“The only reason I’m able to go to the university is because of this waiver…And it’s because I’m Native. It makes me feel good about who I am.”
– Truckee Meadows Community College student Alyssa Sweet
As of October, 73 students have benefited from the waiver at UNR alone, accounting for about $330,000 in waived tuition this year. For the 2022-23 academic year, another 50 students have applied for the waiver at UNR, said Daphne Emm Hooper, the school’s director of Indigenous Relations.
Since the waiver passed, UNR has seen a 13% increase in Native American undergraduate students and a 3% increase in graduate students.
“Part of it is that we’re seeing more graduate students coming in,” Hooper said “It created access to additional funding. Graduate students don’t have access to as much financial aid. The waiver applies towards graduate courses, I think that’s why we are seeing more Native students seeking out more advanced degrees.”
‘This has been life-changing’
Alyssa Sweet, 20, a descendant of the Lovelock Paiute Tribe, is still an undergraduate at the Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. Last year, 24 students at the community college benefited from tuition waiver amounting to about $30,000 in fees waived.
Next semester, Sweet is transferring to UNR now that she has more stable funding for her educational goals of becoming an elementary school teacher.
“The only reason I’m able to go to the university is because of this waiver,” Sweet said. “And it’s because I’m Native. It makes me feel good about who I am.”
Before the tuition waiver, Sweet could only afford to attend about two classes a semester at Truckee Meadows Community College, a story she’s seen repeated by other Native students.
“Without the fee waiver I honestly would have had to drop out this semester. I’ve been having a lot of financial issues and I can’t rely on most help,” Sweet said. “This has been life-changing for me just because I can rely on something else, something I know that’s going to be there.”
The process of confirming Sweet’s eligibility with records of her family’s tribal enrollments has been complicated, she said. A lack of communication and coordination between higher education and tribes has made navigating the waivers requirements difficult. Still, she says the process led her to reconnect with the Lovelock Paiute Tribe and she’s taken steps to enroll as a citizen of the tribe.
“I think that it’s really important for the school administration to have the knowledge and know how to help us with it or always have someone we can ask. I feel like there should be more resources,” Sweet said.
Higher education administrators in Nevada agree that as awareness of the fee waiver grows so will the number of Native students applying.
More than one NSHE institution has added additional staff and programs to provide wrap-around supports for Native American students since the tuition waiver was passed.
Native American student advocate at Truckee Meadows Community College, Delina Trottier, is one of those newly hired staffers. Her outreach was the reason Sweet first found out about the tuition waiver.
“Since August, I’ve been reaching out to the Native American student population and encouraging them to look at the waiver and seeing if they meet the requirements or if they need any help applying,” Trottier said.
She’s also a student at the University of Nevada, Reno and a citizen of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. But for the last 10 years she’s called Pyramid Lake in Nevada home.
“One day my daughter will get to utilize this waiver,” Trottier said.
Many Native students had some awareness of the tuition waiver through their own social networks, but didn’t know where to start or how to apply, said Trottier. Soon she was receiving steady emails from students seeking guidance.
“I used to be a student at Truckee Meadows and they didn’t have this position,” said Trottier. “I was kind of timid and shy to even ask for help when I needed it. I’m trying to be that person I needed when I went to TMCC,” Trottier said.
Connecting with tribal leaders and arranging information meetings and tours with high school students has helped bridge a gap between tribes and the community college, said Trottier.
“There’s a lot of interest from the tribes,” Trottier said.
Karin Hilgersom, the president of Truckee Meadows Community College, said she hopes to grow the program and connect with more tribal nations through public higher education.
“This important fee waiver also started a series of events over the past year that strengthened our relationship with tribes and their representatives. In May 2022, I was honored to award Arlan Melendez, Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and TMCC alumnus, with our President’s Medal,” Hilgersom said. “We are proud of these efforts and are dedicated to serving all students with accessible, affordable educational opportunities.”
As of December, 16 students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas have benefitted from the free tuition waiver. Most of those students are undergraduates. Zack Goodwin, UNLV’s executive director of financial aid and scholarships, said he suspects the waiver will encourage more of those same students and others across Nevada to eventually apply to more costly graduate programs.
“We did have more people applying for it than we did in its initial year,” said Goodwin. “I think the word is pretty much out at this point.”
This story was written by Jeniffer Solis, a contributor to the Nevada Current, where this story first appeared.
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