Tribal Leadership Certificate Program Wins UPCEA Award

Tribal Leadership and Community Development Certificate graduates Allison Garner, Lorenzo Gage Gomez, and Erika McPhetridge at the 2017 UCLA Extension Certificate Graduation Ceremony.

A UCLA Extension certificate program designed to increase access to college for Native American students has earned a major award from a leading nationwide association of university professional and continuing-education divisions.

The Tribal Leadership and Community Development Certificate was named the winner of the 2018 UPCEA Leadership in Diversity Award. The award recognizes an individual or a program representing best practices in promoting the educational success of diverse students. UPCEA will present the award at its 2018 Annual Conference, March 14-16 in Baltimore.

Launched in 2014 for Native American learners — the most underrepresented group in higher education – the program comprises a set of courses to challenge students intellectually while enhancing their leadership skills through exploring issues ranging from federal Indian law and Tribal sovereignty to cultural resource management and Tribal economic development. The program combines large- and small-group instruction, online and on-ground delivery, quarterly culmination projects, and college readiness support throughout the program.

“By taking college-level courses on issues germane to their communities, Native American youth can strengthen and demonstrate the academic, leadership, and personal qualities that help them apply for university admission,” said Aymara Zielina, Extension’s Program Director for the certificate.

“I came [to the program] when I was 14 because I wanted a better chance at getting into a good college,” said Allison Garner, who earned her certificate in 2017. “This really opened my opportunities.” Garner, a member of the Chumash Tribe, participated in the Bakersfield cohort of the program, and is currently attending Taft College in Kern County.

The creation and administration of the program involved the contributions of UCLA Extension, the Tribal Learning Community and Educational Exchange (TLCEE) at UCLA, UCLA School of Law, and various Tribal communities. Starting with 23 students in a pilot program three years ago, the program now has more than 200 enrollments.

The rate of college admissions for the Leadership Certificate program participants has increased by more than 100 percent during that time. In May of 2017, student participants had received acceptance offers from a range of public and private universities, including highly selective institutions like UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Brown. “The acceptance rate of Leaders Certificate students to these institutions is exemplary, especially in light of the fact that Native American students represent only .8 percent of college student populations nationwide,” Zielina said.

By combining different tribal communities and resources, students from lower economic means or more remote reservations can nevertheless access a first-class educational experience that will have a lifelong impact, Zielina said. “The program also demonstrates the importance of involving community partners when creating programs for underserved students,” she added. “When communities that support the program have an opportunity to benefit from their students’ education, it creates a more sustainable model than one that focuses on the student achievement alone.”

The number of tribes participating in the program has grown from two to 11. Participants in the program hail from tribes throughout California located as far as 300 miles from each other, and more than 150 miles from Los Angeles. Thus, Zielina points out, the certificate supports diversity and collaboration among Native Nations as well as within education.

The Leaders Certificate has been positively received in Native communities in large part due to the importance placed on culturally sensitivity, awareness and needs during its formation and after it launched, Zielina said. The program is funded through an endowment grant from the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, through which many students receive scholarships.

“In many respects, our Native communities have a mistrust of academia through so many years of failed inclusion within the overall education process,” said TLCEE Program Director Dwight Lomayesva. “What we are accomplishing now is to bridge our Native communities with academia through a program that is culturally significant to our communities and trains our students to be more knowledgeable on contemporary Tribal issues.”

Lorenzo Gomez, a member of the Tubatubal Tribe who participated in the Bakersfield cohort, said he saw the program as “the perfect opportunity to help expand my education and get some experience with college-level courses and how I should better mentally and studiously prepare myself for a university. A lot of my instructors have been inspiring, helpful, and they’ve been all near and dear to my heart. They’ve become like family.”

Gomez is a senior at East Bakersfield High School, and is also participating in a work-experience program at local hospitals. “My plans are to go on to a university,” he said. “I’d like to major in biology, and maybe one day become a doctor.”