A Home-Grown College

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The nation's oldest tribal college is hoping to make new inroads by earning accreditation for its own four-year teacher education program. But first the 1,800-student Diné College will have to address some more immediate shortcomings: a shortage of staff members, low pay, and facilities in disrepair.

Diné College, a two-year institution formerly known as Navajo Community College, offers many unique courses in the history, culture, and language of the Navajo people, or Din‚, as they call themselves. Administrators here at the campus in Tsaile want to add a four-year program in elementary education--a Diné teacher education program--to the college's offerings.

But the 29-year-old college struggles with many of the same issues that the 26 other tribally run colleges in the United States do. Many of those are two-year community colleges, although some offer four-year and even graduate degrees. As noted in a recent report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, they must charge low tuition for their largely low-income students, and they must rely on outside money to stay afloat. Yet, federal funds have not kept up with increasing enrollment.

A February 1995 decision by the regional accrediting agency prevented Diné College from offering a four-year teacher education program right away. In addition to their concerns about staff and facilities, accreditors said that its library was not up to par.

So for now, the college has been offering the program in cooperation with Arizona State University. ASU faculty come to Tsaile and teach some classes, with students ultimately receiving their degrees from ASU.

Still, Diné College officials recognize the need for a program of their own.

Terry Becenti, the academic adviser for teacher education, points out that many potential Navajo teachers have associate degrees but haven't received a four-year diploma because of financial constraints or family commitments that prevent them from leaving the reservation.

And Ferlin Clark, the college's vice president for development and foundation, says that the demand is there. "We have a clientele that wants the Diné teacher education program and this Navajo-driven curriculum," he says. "Basically, the curriculum speaks for itself--it's really the funding component we're talking about right now."

The college is seeking funds from both the tribe and from private foundations to make the needed improvements. In the meantime, 14 students are now completing a third year in the Diné teacher education program on their way toward earning an ASU diploma.

Late one recent afternoon, a third-year student offered a presentation of her junior thesis, written in Navajo, before a panel of Navajo community leaders.

Speaking in Navajo, with occasional tidbits in English, she fielded such questions as how she would teach the clan system and how she would deal with possible student prejudice against white teachers.

At the end of the defense, the evaluators thanked her but gave her a stern reminder about the importance of her mission. Accreditors will keep close tabs on how this four-year program works, warned one member of the evaluation panel. "You have a big challenge ahead of you," he said, "not only to be a good teacher, but to be a product of this initiative."

Vol. 16, Issue 37, Page 41

Published in Print: June 11, 1997, as A Home-Grown College
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