Megan Van Pelt just finished resident assistant training at the University of Oregon. She’s settling into her dorm room at UO’s Kalapuya Ilihi residence hall and preparing for the start of the fall term on Monday.
Van Pelt is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Van Pelt’s room is filled with items reflecting her heritage and her home in eastern Oregon. She thumbs through a book on Indigenous iconography while leaning on her bed. Next to her is a crafting station where she does beadwork using materials, such as dentalium shells, that have significance for the Umatilla and other Northwest tribes.
Van Pelt, 22, is looking forward to the new school year. Along with helping supervise a hall specifically for students in UO’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program, she’s co-director of the university’s Native American Student Union.
But, things weren’t always going so well for Van Pelt. She says she considered dropping out last year.
“My first term, I didn’t think UO was going to be that expensive, to be honest,” Van Pelt said. “I just remember struggling to find more financial aid. I was thankful that I saved up some money for myself through community college because that was the reason why I went to community college — to save up for university.”
This year, Van Pelt doesn’t have to worry about college expenses. She’s one of the recipients of the state’s new Oregon Tribal Student Grant, which covers such costs as tuition, housing and books for students who are enrolled members of one of Oregon’s nine federally-recognized Native American tribes.
“For the first time, I’m able to just focus on what it’s like to be a student and not worry about financial aid,” she said.
Roughly 450 Native American students were approved for grant funds, according to Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.
The Oregon Legislature allocated $19 million toward the Oregon Tribal Student Grant program, based on an estimate that 700 or more students would receive the grant.
The state agency says it will continue to process applications and award grant money until the $19 million is exhausted. If that doesn’t happen this fall, students can apply in the winter and spring terms.
Van Pelt is originally from Pilot Rock, in eastern Oregon. She went to Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton before transferring to UO last year.
During her time at BMCC, Van Pelt stepped into leadership roles, eventually becoming the community college’s student body president. She also restarted the college’s Native American Club with the help of Annie Smith — the Native American Liaison and Success Coach/Navigator for both BMCC and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Smith helps Indigenous students access resources and navigate processes like financial aid and registering for classes.
Smith said for students like Van Pelt who are attending universities, the new Oregon Tribal Student Grant is a game-changer.
“The students that attend BMCC, if they’re eligible for scholarships and grants, they’re pretty much set. But once they transfer onto the universities, they have to find additional scholarships and grants to help, so there’s always that financial hardship as you’re trying to get good grades and do everything else. There’s that pressure of, ‘Do I have enough money?’” Smith said.
University costs are one reason Native American students leave college
Van Pelt felt the financial blow of transferring to the University of Oregon from BMCC. The university’s tuition is far higher than classes at a community college and living away from home means covering additional costs, like housing and parking.
Rebecca Burke, Van Pelt’s mom, said moving away from home — and her hometown community college — was expensive.
“She had no bills [living at home], so her first year in Eugene was such a shock for her,” Burke said. “All those things you take for granted as a kid. Like, laundry detergent has to go in the budget.”
Burke says she and the rest of the family are proud that Van Pelt got the tribal student grant and persevered through the stress she was having last year.
“Those are the kinds of things that make you try harder. Either you go one way or the other; you’re like, ‘I’m done. I’m sick of it.’ Or you’re like, ‘I’m going to do this,’” Burke said. “Those kinds of challenges, to me, just inspire her more.”
Van Pelt hasn’t had to take out any student loans, but she said she came close last year. Advisors at UO helped her find last-minute scholarships to apply for in order to avoid taking on debt.
“I think growing up seeing my siblings go through debt at school was [...] huge — I can’t do that,” Van Pelt said. “That was my worst fear.”
According to data from the HECC, only 45% of Native American students who enroll in a public university complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. That compares to 68% of all students statewide.
Students like Van Pelt see the tribal student grant as helping them get across the finish line.
“When Gov. Brown called us to let us know that she was going to seek funds to help us further our tribal members in their college dreams, it was very good news,” said Kat Brigham, Board Chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Van Pelt’s aunt. “We were also very pleased that a number of our tribal members did apply and are going to move forward with their college education.”
It’s unclear if the grant program will continue to serve students past this new school year. Van Pelt has one more year at UO after this current academic year and doesn’t know if she’ll have the state grant to rely on.
Future funding for the grant program is up to the state legislature and Oregon’s next governor.
The HECC recently submitted its requested budget to the legislature, asking that lawmakers fund the grant for the 2023-25 biennium and make it a permanent program moving forward.
Financial stability gives more room for community
Van Pelt says she’s always felt like she’s had “imposter syndrome” — doubting her abilities and accomplishments. But those feelings especially surfaced during her first year at UO.
Van Pelt had been working on the Umatilla Indian Reservation since she was 14, and she said she had gotten used to being around people who looked like her. Going to school at a predominantly white university like UO was a bit of a culture shock, and she said she had trouble feeling like she belonged. Worrying about how to pay for school only intensified that.
“I have a cousin that went to UO and only lasted a term because he couldn’t afford it financially,” Van Pelt said. She says the high costs added to the discomfort she feels she shares with other Native American college students.
“That has to do with my imposter syndrome but also has to do with the fact that we’ve always had struggles going to college,” Van Pelt said. “We’ve always had a huge disparity of affording higher education and affording to even be in this space.”
Van Pelt said reducing financial stress has helped her feel more like she belongs on campus.
“There are some difficulties and struggles of being at a predominantly white school like University of Oregon, but I’m also fortunate enough to meet the people that I have,” Van Pelt said.
Less worry about money has also given Van Pelt the opportunity to connect with her tribal heritage more.
She started UO last year as an English major but ended up changing to Native American and Indigenous Studies, and she’s excited to dive more deeply into that this year.
“It’s really my passion to learn tribal history,” Van Pelt said. “It’s something that I’m actively academically hungry for.”
Those interests are pointed away from campus as well. Van Pelt founded a beadwork business with a friend focused on selling beadwork at local pow-wows. She says she also plans on teaching some of her friends how to bead this year.
Van Pelt says she wants every Native American student to have the opportunity to pursue higher education and build communities like the one she has in Eugene. That’s why she hopes the tribal student grant will be extended past just this current school year — for her own sake, and for future generations to come.
“I really hope to God that this grant just keeps going because I know too many students who have dropped out or have just been pushed away from the idea of college,” Van Pelt said.
In Native and Indigenous communities, there’s an idea of the “seventh generation,” Van Pelt said — the idea that today’s actions should positively impact future generations.
“What we’re doing today is ensuring the next generations down the line don’t have to struggle,” she said. “This means that I am not going to be stressed out, and I’m finally going to be a normal student — and that’s something that should be the bare minimum. Unfortunately, it’s not.”