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23 May 2019

Tribal Tutelage: The California Indian Nations College Celebrates a Year of Offering Classes—but the School Has a Lot More Work to Do

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CINC staff members Daisy Ocampo, Nicholas Rajen-Dine, Celeste Townsend, T. Robert Przeklasa and Ryan Mariano. CINC staff members Daisy Ocampo, Nicholas Rajen-Dine, Celeste Townsend, T. Robert Przeklasa and Ryan Mariano. Brian Blueskye

The California Indian Nations College is celebrating its first year of offering unique higher-education courses to local Native Americans students.

While the school didn’t start offering courses until the fall of 2018, its genesis occurred in 2015, when Theresa Mike began meeting with local tribal leaders and academic leaders in Southern California. While there are currently 37 accredited tribal colleges in the United States, there is not one in California.

In 2017, CINC received seed funding from the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians. The school’s partners include College of the Desert; the University of California, Riverside; and CSU-San Bernardino. The college’s offices are on the UCR Palm Desert Campus.

T. Robert Przeklasa, CINC’s vice president of academic affairs, said the college fills a disconcerting need.

“The latest figures were put out in 2016. CSU-San Marcos’ California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center put out figures that showed in California and the United States, (Native American college) enrollment is inching down,” Przeklasa said.

Celeste Townsend, the interim president of CINC, suggested a possible reason for that decrease.

“Not everybody claims (they’re) Native American,” Townsend said. “When you go around to these colleges and universities, the enrollment is 1 percent. How many students are claiming Native American as their primary ethnicity, and how many are choosing not to claim?”

Even though there’s a sizable Native American population in the Coachella Valley, Townsend said she’s dealt with a lot of misconceptions.

“During our meetings with College of the Desert as one of the first points of contact we had, they asked us, ‘Where are you going to get your students?’” Townsend said. “We were like, ‘Are you kidding? We’re in the desert. There are so many tribes within this area!’ So there’s a lot of misunderstanding, and misconceptions. … A lot of universities go after those (students) straight out of high schools. We opened it up to anybody and everybody. Having been someone who took 12 years to get an (associate’s) degree, I come from an understanding that you go where you are comfortable. Some of them don’t feel comfortable.”

Townsend said she and her colleagues were surprised by the immediate demand for what CINC was offering.

“We moved in here last year in July, and September was when we were approved to offer the general-education courses for CINC,” Townsend said. “We had 3 1/2 weeks to recruit, and we needed to have 12 students in each class. In 3 1/2 weeks, we landed 40 students. Seeing the age range and the students wasn’t just really exciting; it was really heartfelt. … We were like, ‘Wow! (The demand) is really out there! We’re just trying to start!’

“We’re still developing policies and procedures, and we still need to get our necessary accreditation. We’re cart before the horse, offering these courses through College of the Desert, which is our incubator and our host, with UCR supporting our offices. We’re trying to establish California Indian Nations College as a standalone college.”

Townsend said they learned a lot from their first year of offering courses.

“Our vision at first was to offer these culturally infused courses for our students, but seeing the diversity we have in the age and desires of our students, there has to be that personalized focus,” Townsend said. “We have a personal approach: ‘What can we do? How can we help you?’ We’ve found that (some students) are struggling with writing. You have those who are needing that extra writing and math support, which we have begun to offer through workshops. We concentrated on offering English 1A, which is composition, and a counseling class to develop an educational plan for themselves. … We’re trying to accommodate their needs by offering these classes while still trying to build a college, build a program and build degrees.”

California Indian Nations College is seeking regional accreditation, which can take years to achieve.

“Regional accreditation is quite a process,” Przeklasa said. “You have to become eligible for accreditation. In California, the accrediting body is the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. You have to be operating for three years with students and finances before you can even apply to be eligible. Once you’re granted eligibility, you have to supply more years of records. … Basically you’re looking, at the very earliest, of seven years of operations.

“We wanted to be sure our classes counted. … If we were offering them on our own, it wouldn’t fly. (Other colleges) wouldn’t recognize the courses. So we started with this partnership with UC Riverside, and the plan was to offer classes through their extension. When we started talking more with the accrediting commission, they said, ‘UC doesn’t offer associate’s degrees, so you can’t work with them. Find an institution that offers two-year degrees.’ That’s when we started working with College of the Desert. We’re doing our best to operate and move toward accreditation while still getting our students those courses that can be transferred.”

While looking at the courses offered, I noticed a class for tribal-law-related matters. That led to a discussion of why college education is important for tribal sovereignty to survive.

“We have a student who is from one of the tribes east of here. She is a little older and has said to me, ‘My tribe doesn’t have leaders anymore. They’ve passed on, and somebody needs to take over. I need to educate myself so I can take over,’” Przeklasa said.

CINC is currently offering classes for free.

“During our first term, the Theresa A. Mike Scholarship Foundation gave scholarships to all of our students. They were fully funded in these courses. For this (concluding spring) term, the courses are funded, and students don’t have a financial barrier again; all they have to do is purchase their books and get to school, and everything else is covered,” Przeklasa said. “We’re working hard with our foundation and our development people to ensure that we have the support for the college so we can do that and buy out the classes to ensure that there is no cost for our students. However, should we have to charge the students tuition, it’s going to be the same tuition as College of the Desert. There are a number of programs that College of the Desert has through the state where if you meet the criteria, you can get in for free. There are also Pell Grants and the Promise Grant, so those avenues of financial assistance would be open to the students.”

Townsend said CINC has a lot more work to do.

“When you look at the college as a whole, we need educated board members. We need faculty recruitment. We still need to recruit and focus on these students. We need to continue to work on our curriculum.”

For more information, visit cincollege.org.

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