SRJC Native American summer program aims at narrowing achievement gap

The three-week program allows students to experience college life while exploring their Native American identity.|

Makila Smith painted the outside of her mask blue and purple to represent the sadness and insecurity that people see in her. She used black, white and red to symbolize her true self, one that enjoys art and photography.

“It’s a balance of identity within yourself,” said Smith, a 16-year-old Santa Rosa High School junior and a descendant of the Round Valley Pomo tribe.

The art project was part of a Native American summer bridge program for high school students at Santa Rosa Junior College. The three-week program, which concludes Thursday, aims at narrowing the achievement gap for Native American students, introducing the teens to college life while helping them explore their identity.

In its fourth year, the program is the brainchild of Brenda Flyswithhawks, psychology professor and chairwoman of the behavioral sciences department.

“Our intention is really to help them understand that it doesn’t need to be either or. I don’t need to be Indian or pass as white. I can be successful in two worlds, not just one,” said Flyswithhawks, who has been at SRJC for 30 years.

During the program, she likes to emphasize to students that they belong on the SRJC campus.

“Santa Rosa Junior College is your land. It’s Pomo land,” she tells students. “It’s just that Santa Rosa Junior College is the caretaker of it now.”

“We try to help them make sense of what a college education is,” Flyswithhawks said. “It’s not just about taking classes, but it’s about what those interests are and how to line that up.”

Native American students at the SRJC have a 30% success rate at completing an associate degree, certificate program or transfer within six years, according to 2017 data from the college. In contrast, SRJC students overall have a 52% completion rate, while white students have a 57% rate and Asian students a 60% rate. Latino students have a ?45% success rate.

Flyswithhawks designed the program so that high school students can earn college credit. She wanted to provide them with an incentive to participate.

This past school year, 619 Native American or Alaska Native students were enrolled in Sonoma County K-12 schools, according to the California Department of Education.

“Native Americans are one of our target populations for helping close achievement gaps,” said Genevieve Bertone, SRJC director of student equity.

The program costs about $35,000 to run, and is covered in part by the California College Promise Grant. Breakfast is provided, along with Chromebooks that students take home when they complete the program.

Students this week worked on screen printing and giving presentations on schools in the UC and CSU systems. About 100 students have been through the program since it started in 2016.

On Tuesday, sisters Pauline and Colleen Beltran, 18 and 16, respectively, gave a presentation on UC Santa Barbara after they’d researched everything from demographics and tuition costs to on-campus Native American clubs and resources.

“It gave me a clearer understanding of the college process. It’s a great tool to have to be able to come here and ask questions you’re wondering about with college,” said Colleen Beltran, who attends Montgomery High, where her sister graduated from in May.

The Beltran sisters learned about the bridge program through their mother, who works for the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians.

Charlie Malicay, 19, was enrolled in the Native American summer bridge program last year. He just completed his first year at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he studies psychology.

“It really impacted me to go to the JC,” Malicay said of the program. “It allowed me to see the experience of what it was like to be a college student.”

During this month’s program, students talked about some of the challenges their ancestors faced, including during the 19th and 20th centuries when Native American youth were sent to boarding schools designed to strip them of their culture and assimilate them to European American culture. They also expressed an array of opinions over Gov. Gavin Newsom’s public apology last week for the massacre of 16,000 Native Californians in the 19th century.

“All of those discussions, it builds our community. Once you have community, you begin to grow,” said Elizabeth Billy, program recruiter and member of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. “There has to be a level of trust. With Native Americans, trust is a big issue.”

“There is no other place where they can talk about historical trauma,” said Billy, who recruits Native American students for the program from local high schools. “It’s more than just awareness for them. Some of them come here defeated, saying ‘I’m not going to pass high school.’?”

Guillermo Garcia, counselor and teacher who’s been with the program since its inception, said it’s important to understand the past so students can move forward in their education.

“It’s really about exposing students to college options and showing them the impact that Natives have not only to their community but to the outside world,” Garcia said. “I think students carry both of those worlds with them … Most students don’t understand their value.”

Billy, who also works part time for Santa Rosa City Schools, said she hopes to collaborate more with other tribes for future sessions of the program. Next year, they plan to introduce basket-weaving and bead-making lessons, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or On Twitter @susanmini.

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