Fifth-year student Nelson Guevara leads a tour of prospective Native American… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
Before Isaiah Aragon, a 17-year-old heading into his senior year, arrived in June at a weeklong camp for Native Americans at UC Riverside, he wasn't sure where he'd apply to college.
But after only a day on campus with 30 other Native American high schoolers, Riverside was a possibility.
"It has me a little more interested," said Isaiah, a member of the Ohlone tribe who attends school in Claremont.
Organizers say the purpose of the camp, known as the Gathering of the Tribes, isn't necessarily to steer students toward UC Riverside. "We need more Native Americans in college. It doesn't matter if it's UC Riverside or Riverside Community College," said Cliff Trafzer, a professor who specializes in American Indian history.
UC Riverside is among many colleges that hold summer activities for potential minority students — especially in California, where affirmative action has been banned for 17 years. (Most of this year's campers had just been born when voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996, which ended race-based admission policies at state schools.)
The Gathering of the Tribes, the longest-running program of its kind in Southern California, appears to have contributed to the increase of Native American students at the university. When the camp began in 2005, there were 48 Native American undergraduates. Last fall, there were 74.
Over the years, about 90% of high schoolers who took part in the camp eventually went on to college, including 10 students at UC Riverside. "We're very proud of that," Trafzer said.
Overall, Native Americans made up 0.6% of freshman enrollment in the UC system in fall 2012, according to UC statistics.
Students are selected for the camp based on grade point averages, a personal essay and other criteria. The camp, which costs about $30,000 a year, is subsidized by UC Riverside funds and free to the students.
Most participants this year said they intend to go to college but haven't divided their selections into categories of "reaches," "matches" and "safety" schools yet.
But many said they were becoming comfortable on campus and liked the idea of studying at a place that is supportive of Native Americans.
"I didn't know a single person when I came here and I already found two people in the same tribe as me," said Sukmal Turner, a 16-year-old who attends Valley Center High School.
Kelby Spencer, a 19-year-old incoming freshman who participated in the camp last year, said it was one of the reasons he decided to go to UC Riverside instead of the University of Kansas.
"Once I got to know the people here, I saw that they'd help me succeed," said Spencer, who took the train from his home outside Gallup, N.M., to attend.
The campers stay in a dorm, take writing and video production classes, and attend workshops on how to time management and how to fill out UC applications. They also learn about financial aid.
"We want to give them a college experience," said Joshua Gonzales, director of the Native American Student Program at UC Riverside. There is, however, a 10 p.m. lights-out policy, he said.
The campers also met with current UC Riverside Native American students, who advised them on the transition from high school to college. It can be difficult, and they would have to study harder, better manage their time and get to know their professors, they were told.
"Use all of your resources," said Maria Lorenzo, who graduated this year with a bachelor's degree in Native American studies. "Take whatever help you can get."