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NMSU Digital Pathways mentors understand tribal members' needs

OHKAY OWINGEH PUEBLO - Wenona Brascoupé knows personally the emotional strain associated with leaving the tribal community to attend college.



NMSU's Digital Pathways mentor Kimberly Sisneros demonstrates the ability to link a computer to the distance education programs online as mentor Wenona Brascoupé, left, and Sam Suina, Digital Pathways co-director, watch. (NMSU Photo by Jane Moorman)

The Tesuque Pueblo member left home after high school to attend college at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "I didn't even know where Las Cruces was. It was the longest road trip of my life," she said. "The years I spent at NMSU finishing my degree, I really missed the traditional activities at home. I can relate to how my sisters, who are living out of state, feel when they call home and we tell her what she is missing."

"It's difficult for a Native American who wants to participate in tribal activities or who is called home for family responsibilities to fulfill their course requirements," said Brascoupé, who earned a bachelor's degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism management.

Kimberly Sisneros chose to stay home after graduating from high school and start a family. Now the Santa Clara Pueblo member raises her children with her husband, Eric, works full-time and attends the College of Santa Fe, which she says keeps her very busy.

"You have to juggle everything and not let the little problems that arise stop you from fulfilling your education," said Sisneros, who will graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in business. "It can be done, but sometimes you need help and encouragement from others."

Giving encouragement to others who are continuing their education is now what both Brascoupé and Sisneros do as mentors with New Mexico State University's Digital Pathways distance education program. The program will soon offer online courses and Webcast classes in tribal communities to allow residents to not have to uproot their lives to attend college away from home.

Having worked as advisers to high school students and non-traditional college students for two years with Eight Northern Indian Pueblo Council's (ENIPC) education department, the two women say working with NMSU's newest program is a natural step in their efforts to encourage people to further their education.

"We needed mentors who knew their communities. And Eight Northern was willing to combine funding to have Wenona and Kim work for both organizations," said Sam Suina, co-director of NMSU's Digital Pathways program.

"Kim and Wenona have strengths that are different yet complement each other in the work that they do," said Patricia Reifel, ENIPC's education director, who administers programs for Tesuque, Nambé, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Picuris and Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan) pueblos. "We are pleased to partner with NMSU to expand the program to our eight pueblos."

As the Talent Search adviser for ENIPC, Brascoupé works with high school students at Santa Fe Indian School, and at the Pueblo of Tesuque. She counsels them about making the next step in their education.

Sisneros, as the ENIPC higher education adviser, helps traditional students enter college and non-traditional students return to the classroom to obtain a higher education degree. "Many people have been excited about going to college, but then they say, 'But, who will take care of my children.' I can relate to the problems they face and I help them find solutions so they can go to school."

Both women say that Digital Pathways gives them an additional solution to help their clients reach their goals.

While other universities are working with Native American tribes and pueblos to bring educational programs to the tribal communities, Reifel said, "NMSU is going beyond the others. NMSU is looking for ways to get creative with funding and facilities to provide opportunities to the people."

Partnering with the pueblo higher education department is the key to building the foundation of the Digital Pathways program, according to Suina and Shelly Valdez, co-director of the program.

"We are looking for ways we can work together to bring college to the people," said Suina. "That may mean using facilities provided by the communities or having the university help connect the pueblo computer lab to high speed Internet so they can access Webcast classes or other courses online."

NMSU partnering with tribal communities and the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute is the way to bridge the traditional tribal world and the contemporary-technical world, according to Suina.

"There is a legacy of people bringing programs to the tribal communities that they think are needed to help the Native Americans. We want this program to be different," said Suina. "We want the tribal communities to tell us what courses they would like to access and then provide those classes for them."

After discussions with the pueblo higher education departments, Suina says an interest is being shown for courses in hotel, restaurant and tourism management, early childhood development education, criminal justice, health fields and tribal management.

"We are partnering with SIPI (Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute) to develop a degree in tribal management, which includes tribal law, leadership, accounting, resource and economic development, federal Indian policy and other business and management courses," Suina said. The partnership is enabling the two organizations to find ways to address the needs of the tribal leaders who have themselves shown interest in furthering their education through the Digital Pathways program.

The Digital Pathways directors and mentors are presently holding meetings with tribal leaders and community members to determine what courses are desired and how the entities can work together to bring the program to the people.