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Oregon invests $19 million in scholarships for Indigenous students

Oregon lawmakers have allocated $19 million in grants to pay college expenses for Indigenous students across the state next year.

PORTLAND, Ore — Oregon has made a historic investment in access to higher education for Indigenous students. Governor Kate Brown, who proposed the program in the 2022 legislative session, noted the need for such a grant because of the systemic barriers Native Americans have faced for decades.

Through the Oregon Tribal Scholarship, Oregon lawmakers have allocated $19 million in grants to pay for college expenses for Indigenous students across the state next school year, 2022-2023.

Athena Rilatos, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, is one of many Indigenous students familiar with the high cost of a college education.

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“It’s a real tough battle,” Rilatos said. “I actually lived out of my car for three years of my bachelor’s degree.”

She graduated in 2020. It took her 10 years, partly due to financial difficulties.

Now she has completed a year of schooling for her master’s degree in architecture, but she had to stop.

“It’s very expensive to get a master’s degree and my family lives on the Siletz Reservation and, you know, we just don’t have that kind of money,” Rilatos said.

She hopes to get her master’s degree in architecture so she can bring her expertise to her tribe and contribute by building more houses.

But the Oregon Tribal Student Grant brings some relief. The state has set aside $19 million to help Native students from Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes. The money will pay for college-related expenses, including tuition, housing, and books for the upcoming school year.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) said new students and current students can apply for the grant. State officials anticipate the money will help 700 or more students. The priority deadline to apply is August 1 and funding will be awarded until funds are exhausted.

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Judy Bluehorse Skelton, who identifies as Nez Perce and Cherokee, is an assistant professor at Portland State University in the Department of Indigenous Nations Studies. Skelton said the grant money was much needed.

“All of our reservation communities are in rural parts of the state that often don’t participate, for different reasons, in the prosperity you might [have] say Portland, or Salem, or Eugene,” Skelton said.

Skelton said Native Americans as a whole have the highest rate of poverty and in a press release HECC said 40% of Native Americans applying for financial aid in Oregon still cannot afford tuition. , despite additional financial support from other grants or contributions from family members. Additionally, Skelton said Indigenous peoples are still dealing with generational trauma and other fallout from historical events.

“The consequences of colonization and essentially a program of genocide, which we are still recovering from,” Skelton explained.

That’s why Skelton and Rilatos said the grant was so important.

“Just seeing this as an opportunity for us…feels really good,” Rilatos said.

While they said the grant is a step in the right direction, they also say there’s still a lot to be done. The grant covers nine federally recognized tribes, but they say there are more tribes than that in the state.

Also, the grant is only for the next school year. For funding to continue, the legislature will need to approve the grant for another year.

In addition to funding, Skelton said more needs to be done in terms of inclusion as well.

“It lowers the financial barriers, but we still have the hard work of making sure that when you walk into the facility, people feel welcome. They see themselves represented,” Skelton said. “We still come up against the barriers of institutional racism and exclusion.

“Trust to return inside a government institution, trauma students and their families must decide that they have that courage and stamina to endure because those institutions do not reflect our Indigenous culture.”