By Kyle Mittan,
A University of Arizona College of Education program that provides mentorship and educational resources to Arizona’s Indigenous communities will extend its reach thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the Arizona Department of Education.
The Native Student Outreach, Access and Resiliency program, better known as Native SOAR, emphasizes Indigenous teaching and knowledge. Over the course of 10 weeks, the program allows UArizona students from any major to spend about three to four hours a week mentoring middle and high students across Arizona and teaching them about attending college, cultural resiliency, leadership skills and identity exploration.
“Historically, Indigenous students have lower enrollment, retention, and graduation rates in higher education compared to other student populations,” said Native SOAR director Amanda Cheromiah. “Native SOAR closes educational gaps by providing culturally responsive programming and mentorship that increases the number of Indigenous students who enter and graduate from college.”
The program includes a class, also called Native SOAR, in which university students can earn three credits per semester. Native SOAR staff and students also hold workshops, available to any local K-12 educators, that emphasize Indigenous knowledge and best practices to help educators better serve Indigenous students.
Although mentoring is at the center of the program’s mission, Native SOAR includes a range of resources related to recruitment, retention and career development, said Cheromiah, who runs the program with two graduate student assistants, Jeremiah Foster and Myrhea Sherman.
Native SOAR had to find ways to offer those services virtually during COVID-19, Cheromiah added, doing so at first with funding from the College of Education and the Office of the Provost.
“Our ability to mentor online and in person really helped us create healing spaces and spaces of innovation with our Indigenous communities,” Cheromiah said, adding that students and educators in rural areas had asked for better access to technology and online resources. “Being able to reach our remote communities has been very, very special.”
The new funding will help the program continue to reach those communities, Cheromiah said. Over three years, Native SOAR will purchase 750 tablets, which will be loaded with mentoring resources, for middle and high school students. The program will purchase an additional 65 tablets for program staff and educators.
Native SOAR will also be able to offer more workshops and professional development opportunities to K-12 educators. One such event, held in February, brought educators from Southern Arizona school districts and tribal education offices to the UArizona campus.
The grant will also allow the program to continue paying its mentors, who earn a salary for their work, Cheromiah said.
“For nearly two decades, Native SOAR has been an invaluable resource for Indigenous students at the University of Arizona, as well as Indigenous communities across the state,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. “This new funding from the state will allow this crucial program to reach more people. I am incredibly grateful to our outstanding Native SOAR faculty and staff, and I am so proud the University of Arizona is a leader in this work.”
‘We’re standing here before you’
UArizona student Cassandra Perez first heard about Native SOAR while hanging out at Native American Student Affairs, a cultural center on the UArizona campus that serves Native American students. She said she “really clicked” with the opportunity to connect with young students and give back to local Indigenous communities.
“I think it’s one of the best things that has ever happen to me,” she said. “Native SOAR gave me a chance to share my story, but it also just gave me a chance to be myself, talk with other people from different backgrounds and to hear their stories as well.”
Perez became one of Native SOAR’s most prolific mentors in the last academic year, logging about 70 hours of mentoring and community programming – well beyond the 35 hours the class requires, Cheromiah said.
Perez, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in law, said she didn’t think twice about logging all those hours. She said Cheromiah always encouraged her and her fellow Native SOAR mentors to make the most out of their opportunities in college.
“I just had that in my mind – this is my last year, my last semester, and I’m going to go all out and I’m going to help as many people as I can,” said Perez, who was crowned 2022-2023 Miss Native American University of Arizona in March. Her platform for the pageant emphasized mentoring Native American youth.
Perez plans to attend the UArizona James E. Rogers College of Law, where she will enroll in a dual degree program that will allow her to pursue a law degree alongside a master’s degree in either Indigenous governance or American Indian studies. Perez said she knows she’ll get through graduate school with the skills she learned from Native SOAR, such as how to connect with diverse groups of people, how to ask for help and how to have confidence in herself.
And she’ll never forget what it means to have Indigenous role models in higher education – and to be one herself.
“They’re just so encouraging, so uplifting,” Perez said of Cheromiah and her team. “It’s so awesome to see Indigenous peoples in higher education living out their dreams and telling their students, ‘You are loved, you are smart, you can achieve this type of goal – you can do it because we’re products of it and we’re standing here before you.'”