More than Scholarships

Many people know that the American Indian College Fund provides financial support to students. Less well known are programs that promote undergraduate research and support faculty scholarship.

By Cheryl Crazy Bull

Leech Lake Tribal College student Giiwitaagiishig Miller studied microplastics in the Mississippi headwaters, a project supported by the American Indian College Fund’s SEEDS program. Photo courtesy of the American Indian College Fund.

The day came, October 3rd, for me to travel to Rapid City and board my first flight. I have never flown before, let alone traveled by myself. This opportunity (to attend the American Indian Science and Engineering Society [AISES] conference) showed me how proud I am to be Native American and what we can accomplish. We have come very far and continue to go further. We are Indigenous. We are scientists.”

Sheyenne Lafferty, Oglala Lakota College student

Sheyenne’s experience was made possible because in 1989 a group of visionary tribal college and university presidents and several supporters of tribally controlled colleges and Native students formed the American Indian College Fund. The College Fund’s mission at the time focused on fundraising to increase access to college for Native students by providing them with scholarships, and increasing public awareness about American Indians and Alaska Natives.

While the College Fund significantly supported facilities and infrastructure at tribal colleges, and also funded faculty and institutional development through the Woksape Oyate project, most of our efforts focused on helping students get into college with scholarships. However, research has shown scholarships alone don’t guarantee successful completion of a degree. Students also need help navigating the complexities of financial aid and choosing a college. Once enrolled, they also need academic advising and other support services. Although college completion was the desired outcome, the College Fund invested little to help students progress through college in a timely manner.

When I arrived at the College Fund in 2012, I was deeply committed to helping Native students access college and achieve their educational goals. I am a firm believer that being able to walk in the door of a tribal college is an incredible accomplishment for many of our tribal citizens. And I recognize that completing one’s education and training has significant benefits. Sometimes tribal college students are going to college to upgrade skills or pursue a personal interest, but most of the time they are going to college to get a certificate or degree that will help them lead better lives and give them the skills to help their communities prosper. Unfortunately, many times students experience issues that interfere with their goals.

Since that time, the College Fund has worked with students and our donors to identify needs and provide resources to assure college completion. We’ve grown the funding from $3 million in scholarships in 1998 to $8 million in 2017-18. We’ve grown our support system for Native college students by adding career education resources, coaching, leadership development, and multi-year scholarship awards.

But the College Fund is doing even more than providing scholarships. To serve students, the College Fund is working to strengthen their tribal nations. In addition to programs that support faculty development and research opportunities, the College Fund also promotes traditional and endangered arts, environmental sustainability, early childhood education, infrastructure, and diverse student success strategies. We do what we can to provide resources so the institutions can focus on building a highly qualified workforce, help reinvigorate culture and language, and support all generations of people in our communities, from newborns to our elders.

Within the College Fund’s growing portfolio of projects, several initiatives focus on research and the development of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM). We are particularly excited about our current focus on early childhood education (ECE) programming. The goal is to increase the capability of early childhood education teachers in STEM by emphasizing place-based indigenous knowledge. This effort connects traditional knowledge to teacher development, curriculum, and family engagement at TCU ECE centers.

The College Fund’s environmental sustainability initiative—Scholarly Emergence for Environmental Design and Stewardship (SEEDS)—also supports the environmental sustainability capacity-building of the colleges. SEEDS grantees build integrated projects designed to focus on the development of innovative, place-based academic programming, course design, and research opportunities aimed at addressing current and future environmental concerns of indigenous communities.

For example, Leech Lake Tribal College received a two-year, $100,000 SEEDS grant that supports part-time and full-time student internships and faculty mentor stipends as one component of their work. Melinda Neville, the SEEDS project director and Leech Lake Tribal College STEM department chair, shared this story of working with one student, Giiwitaagiishig Miller, whose summer research project studied microplastics in the Mississippi headwaters:

“I was approached by a faculty member whose granddaughter had taken my Watershed Research Methods class,” Neville said. “The student designed and implemented the microplastics project within the 15-week class and had chosen to continue with the research with the part-time internship opportunity afforded by the SEEDS grant. The grandmother was first shocked that the student had willingly gone out on the water for the research, and even more amazed at the dedication and scholarship that the student exhibited.”

This student’s research on microplastics, Neville noted, garnered the attention and support of University of Minnesota’s LacCore: National Lacustrine Core Facility.   

Through interdisciplinary projects, SEEDS collaborates with both the Native Arts program and the ECE program at the College Fund. This collaboration strengthens TCUs work with place-based education. For example, when Native arts workshops are held in communities, teaching includes an emphasis on the mathematical skills required to create art as well as the science knowledge that is necessary to properly gather seasonal materials. ECE centers includes traditional foods as part of their services with a focus on helping teachers also understand issues of sustainable agriculture and aquaculture.

To support students in their journey toward college readiness, we’ve expanded our support of high school and transfer students through our Native Pathways Program. Native Pathways uses media, face-to-face interactions, college tours, and local resources to encourage a college-going culture for high school students, help students transfer to four-year institutions, and support students in their first year of college. We’ve also produced a guidebook for students and their families to help with their college planning. The guidebook can be found on our website.

The American Indian College Fund’s 2018-19 Student Ambassadors.

The College Fund also has new resources that help students with career exploration and readiness such as ROAD (Routing Occupational & Academic Development), which matches students to internship opportunities. Another project, Focus 2, helps students examine careers of interest to them. The College Fund is also in the third year of its Student Ambassadors Program. Ambassadors learn about storytelling and public speaking and serve as spokespersons for the College Fund in diverse settings such as community events, celebrations, and donor visits.

The College Fund also directly supports research and evaluation by participating with initiatives that help tell the TCU story and the stories of student success. For instance, the College Fund recently completed a months-long process of assessing graduates through the Gallup-Purdue Index study. This provides the tribal colleges and organizations like the College Fund and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) with useful data affirming the value and impact of TCUs on its students and graduates.

Increasing public knowledge about Native students, TCUs, and the College Fund is also a focus of our work. We work with broadcast, print, and electronic media; publish posts on the College Fund’s social media channels; and develop public service announcements that are placed pro bono on media outlets nationwide.

Additionally, the College Fund sponsors publication of the Tribal College and University Research Journal, the only peer-reviewed journal in the country for tribal college faculty. Established in 2016, it features research related to student success, program development, and the sciences. Research and advocacy are also supported through publication of the College Fund’s equity report for higher education institutions (noted below) and the Native Pathways College Guidebook for Native students, mentioned earlier.

The College Fund is committed to promoting equitable access to higher education for all Native students. Currently about 10 percent of the College Fund’s scholarships go to students attending mainstream institutions. While the organization’s focus is our TCUs, we believe that Native people have the right to attend any college of their choice and the resources to support Native student success. To that end, the College Fund has published a guide for higher education institutions that focuses on strategies to increasing access to and improving the experiences of Native students on their campuses.

Cheryl Crazy Bull, a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, has nearly 40 years of experience working in education with American Indian institutions, including tribal colleges and universities. She has served as the President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund since 2012.

About the American Indian College Fund

The College Fund is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that receives funds from individual donors, corporations, and foundations to support scholarships and student success services and to build capacity of the TCUs. Headquartered in Denver, Colorado, the College Fund supports the 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities that are full members of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (

For more information:

The American Indian College Fund website:


The Tribal College and University Research Journal (current and back issues, as well as submission guidelines and deadlines)

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