Myaamia Center faculty affiliates study effect of self-identity on college success

A group of about 20 students sits in chairs in a circle that takes up the whole room. Twine criss-crosses the empty center of the circle, as some students hang onto a piece of it. In the foreground, a man in a red plaid shirt, whose back is the the camera, holds a ball of twine up in the air with his right hand.

Myaamia Center director Daryl Baldwin (bottom left, in red plaid shirt) leads Miami Indian Heritage class participants in a community web exercise. Researchers Dr. Kate Rousmaniere and Dr. Susan Mosley Howard have found the Heritage class is a key to Miami Tribe students’ success at Miami University.

According to Kate Rousmaniere, educational historians and educational psychologists don’t tend to share much common ground.

“We come to our research with very different approaches. Historians tend to look at social and cultural influences, while psychologists tend to focus on the individual,” says Rousmaniere, a professor in Miami University’s Department of Educational Leadership.

That makes Rousmaniere, who characterizes herself as a “qualitative person” and Susan Mosley-Howard, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and self-described “quantitative person,” unlikely collaborators.

Despite being colleagues in the University’s College of Education, Health, & Society (where Mosley-Howard is currently the interim dean), the two had never collaborated before becoming faculty affiliates of the Myaamia Center, an interdisciplinary research unit dedicated to the preservation of Myaamia language and culture.

The Myaamia Center itself grew out of an unconventional partnership, this one between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University, an institution that occupies land the Native tribe was required to cede to the government in 1795, prior to the Tribe’s forced removal west of the Mississippi.

Today, the Tribe describes its relationship with the University as “thriving and mutually enriching,” and the University is home to the aforementioned Myaamia Center. (“Myaamia” is the Native word from which the English name “Miami” is derived.)

In addition, there are a number of Miami Tribe members enrolled at Miami University, thanks in part to the Miami Indian Heritage Award, which waives tuition for qualified Myaamia students. Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard are interested in the factors that affect retention and the collegiate experience for these students. Among the pair’s initial findings are that in contrast to the low – below 20% on average – federally-reported graduation rates of Native Americans from most non-tribal colleges, the graduation rate of Myaamia students from Miami University is much higher – 75% in 2012. They attribute much of this success to a series of one-credit-hour courses Miami Indian Heritage Award recipients are required to take each semester for the majority of their tenure at the University.

Taught by Myaamia Center staff, including director Daryl Baldwin and assistant director George Ironstrack, these courses cover ecological perspectives and history of the Miami Tribe, Miami Tribe language and culture, and contemporary issues of American Indian tribes.

Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard interview each Myaamia student twice the student’s first year and annually after that. As a result, says Mosley-Howard, “we’re able to evaluate the impact of this curriculum, not just in terms of student learning outcomes, but also in terms of helping them make sense of who they are.”

Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard say the literature in the field shows the issue of self-identity is key to the college success of Native students globally, not just on the U.S. mainland, but also in Hawaii, New Zealand, and other societies.

“Even though we can’t say it’s a direct causal relationship,” says Mosley-Howard, “there’s evidence that students who are exposed to their cultural context – whatever it is – have more positive outcomes.”

Rousmaniere says that this requires understanding that goes deeper than a superficial recognition of ancestry. “The Heritage Award students obviously identify as Myaamia, but they don’t always have an understanding of how that has impacted their own lives,” says Rousmaniere. “The Myaamia Center staff, through these classes, help the students figure that out.”

The Myaamia Center staff and classes also help Tribal students deal with stereotyping and other negative experiences. “Even though these students are at a university that takes great pride in a relationship with a Native American tribe, it’s still a microcosm of the world, so of course things happen here that are not respectful,” says Mosley-Howard. She and Rousmaniere have found that the support provided by the Myaamia Center helps students cope with these challenges.

This is one element the researchers will be paying especially close attention to as they continue their longitudinal study. That’s because the University will soon begin seeing students who have participated in the Miami Tribe’s Eewansaapita Summer Educational Experience, a language and culture program for 10- to 16-year-olds that began in 2005.

“I suspect that the Eewansaapita students will come in with a better sense of what it means to be Myaamia,” says Mosley-Howard, “and it will be interesting to see not only the differences between how those students and previous students view themselves, but also whether that has an effect on how they navigate the views of others.”

While the effect the Eewansaapita experience may have had on incoming students remains to be seen, what is immediately evident is that Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard are committed to working together to tell the full story of Myaamia student success.

“Our disciplines are quite oppositional theoretically,” says Rousmaniere. “But in practice,” continues Mosley-Howard, “we found these points of intersection, and realized it was going to work quite well, and it has.”

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Miami Indian Heritage class photo and photo of Kate Rousmaniere presenting at 2014 Myaamiaki Conference by Andrew Strack, Myaamia Center, Miami University.

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