RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Elijah Watson knows he wants to go to college. He also knows that it will be difficult to leave home on the Navajo reservation if he does.
The 17-year-old was reminded of the tough decision he’ll face next year when he participated in a weeklong celebration in March of his cousin’s Kinaalda, a hallowed Navajo ceremony marking a girl’s transition into womanhood.
“I’m afraid because it’s really hard to leave my family,” he said, noting that college would mean he’d be away from taking part in the same rite for his little sister and participating in other important tribal ceremonies.
To reach students like Watson with higher education aspirations, a growing number of universities are offering programs to recruit and prepare Native American students for a transition to college life that can bring on a wrenching emotional conflict as they straddle two worlds.
Many young Native Americans find themselves divided by their desire for a higher education and the drive to stay close to home to hold onto a critical part of their identity. Sometimes, families discourage children from pursuing college, fearing once they leave the reservation they won’t come back.
That was the case with Watson’s mother — his grandmother encouraged her to stay home and carry on the family tradition of pottery-making.
“These students could be in a classroom with hundreds of kids and no one will be like them so it’s really good for these programs to pull all of these kids together,” said Ahniwake Rose, the director of the National Indian Education Association.
“Moving to college for these kids is taking them so far away from their homes. On top of that, we still have so many first generation students and their parents can’t give them any idea of what college is like,” Rose said.
Dozens have implemented mini-college boot camps, including the University of California, Los Angeles, Yale and Duke. Last week, Watson found himself at the University of California, Riverside, where he was joined by other students, including some as young as 12.
The programs challenge the idea that tribal customs and higher education don’t mix, said Joshua Gonzalez, the director of Native American Student Programs at the university 60 miles east of Los Angeles and hundreds of miles from Watson’s home on the Navajo Nation.
Throughout their week at Riverside, students got a taste of the college experience by attending classroom lectures, eating in the cafeteria and sleeping in the dorms. The 30 students also participated in cultural activities like prayer circles and beading workshops.
“We encourage having your culture and traditions as well as academics,” said Gonzalez, whose program has a roughly 90 percent success rate in getting Native Americans to go to college.
“To be able to know your language, to be able to sing the songs, to know the creation stories — those are things that are really important,” he said.
Upon completion of Riverside’s program, students are given access to the university’s resources and staff to assist with the application process.
Pamela Agoyo, the director of American Indian Student Services at the University of New Mexico, said many programs are introducing kids to the idea of college as early as middle school to give them the time to embrace the possibility and plan for it.
“Institutions are realizing that you don’t start planning for college your freshman year of college,” Agoyo said, noting that students need to plan and prepare for their experience beforehand.
Rose said the boot camps are critical to college success because they help identify peers and mentors who can guide students through rough patches.
Few go on to college and when they do, most drop out.
Only 12 percent of Native Americans between 25 and 34 have four-year degrees, compared to 37 percent of whites, according to a 2012 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. Of the students who do go to college, less than 40 percent graduate, compared to 60 percent of whites.
Jordan Thomas, a member of the Lummi Tribe, attended Riverside’s program and will be a freshman there this fall. She was born on a reservation in Washington state and at age 2 moved with her family to Southern California because there were more educational opportunities.
Lummi cultural traditions are important to her family — she once missed eight weeks of middle school to attend her grandfather’s burial ceremony — and the Riverside program gave her confidence that she can attend school and not lose her Native American identity.
“I learned that it’s all about balance,” she said. “This program has truly helped me.”