TALLAHASSEE — Two weeks of cramped quarters, strict schedules and cold pizza gave 56 Florida teens a genuine taste of college life at some of Florida’s leading institutes of higher learning.
“The dorm was good. The food was not so good. Being without parents? No problem,” said Kyle Alvarado, 17, of Immokalee.
Kyle, a senior at The Vanguard School in Lake Wales, was one of 15 Seminole Tribe members who attended the Florida Indian Youth Program hosted for the 35th consecutive year by the Florida Governor’s Council on Indian Affairs in Tallahassee. Teens who reside in Florida and are members of the Miccosukee Tribe and other groups, including the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Navajo Nation and Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, also participated.
The program, called “camp” by lead organizer and training coordinator Terrence Clark, was divided into two sections by age. In all, 34 incoming high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors made up the Youth Program and 22 incoming high school seniors and recent high school graduates comprised the Leadership Academy.
“The program keeps students in school and shows them the importance of education beyond high school, whether it’s a tech degree, junior college degree or joining the military. It’s what’s after high school for them,” Clark said.
Native American youth have the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation, according to President Barack Obama’s 2014 Native Youth Report released in December 2014. Only 67 percent of Native students graduate high school. And only 53 percent of students who attend schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) graduate.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, however, the graduation rate is improving. The latest statistics, released in March, show a 4.7 percent increase from the class of 2011 through the class of 2013.
Closer to home, Florida Department of Education statistics reveal bigger Native American graduation rate increases: from 67.3 percent for the class of 2010 to 76.8 percent for the class of 2013. The class of 2014 dropped to 73.8 percent, still higher than the national rate.
Clark said credit for Florida’s high school Native student retention figures cannot be solely attributed to summer camp in Tallahassee. At the time of the state program’s creation, the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes also launched initiatives to increase high school graduation.
“All we know for sure is that graduation rates have increased,” Clark said.
At the 2015 youth program, kids were exposed to 10 days of intense science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes and sessions in tribal government, writing, computers and cultural art. The leadership teens, mostly ages 17 through 19, received higher levels of writing, computers and art plus personal and business finance lessons.
Students lived in freshman dormitories on Florida State University campus’ SouthGate Student Centre. Leadership teens attended classes at Tallahassee Community College (TCC) while classes for the younger set were staged at FSU. A side trip for the leadership group included tours of TCC and Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University.
Nights and weekends were filled with adventures that included zip lining at the Tallahassee Museum and exploring nearby historic Blue Springs, known by 15th century Natives as Calutoble. Roller skating, bowling and swimming provided other summer diversions.
Kyle said mixing serious classes and fun activities kept kids interested and busy. Kyle, who plans to study graphic arts, especially enjoyed the culture classes where he fashioned a Navajo dream catcher and learned to weave a Seminole basket.
“My grandmother (Nancy Garza) used to try to teach me how to weave baskets, but I just didn’t get the hang of it. Now that I am older, I get it because I know it’s important,” Kyle said.
Kyle’s brother Alphonso, 18, also a Vanguard senior, said he most liked touring the three college campuses where he might be led to his dream career of helping children – maybe with the Tribe’s Boys & Girls Club.
While visiting buildings and departments dedicated to different degree programs that included law, medicine, architecture and even meteorology, Alphonso found his future at FSU’s College of Human Sciences. Kyle discovered that he is ready to explore options so that he can choose a major later.
Both brothers recommend the camp to all high school students, starting with ninth-graders.
“Kids can get ideas at the very beginning of high school for what they could focus on. And everyone you meet says that they changed their majors; some a lot of times. It’s what you do to figure your life out,” Kyle said. “I was always serious about wanting to going to college, but now I am sure.”
For Kyle, Alphonso and their sister Amber, 16, also a high school senior, the college sneak peek was worth abiding by certain rules. All three siblings will be the first in their family to attend college.
“A sub-goal at FSU was to introduce the teen to campus life, live in a dorm with a roommate, and just like in college, roommates are assigned randomly. You learn to live with another person – not your family,” Clark said. “However, rule No. 1 is stick to the counselors. If you look around and don’t see your counselor, you are in trouble.”
The price for “trouble” was costly. Each provided with a daily allowance, the teens were docked dollars for infractions like being late for class ($1) or speaking disrespectfully to teachers ($7).
The teens could also find trouble if they were caught with personal electronics during daytime hours. Phones, iPads and other devices were collected before lights out at 11 p.m. and not returned until after classes at 4:55 p.m. the next day.
Marty Tommie, 26, who attended the camp when he was 14, returned this year as a leadership counselor. He said the program is more intense than it was a dozen years ago.
“It’s more informative, more structured and less lenient now. It must have made an impact on me when I was 14, but it is not so etched in my memory,” said Tommie, a former Seminole Gaming employee and Valencia College student. “Coming back, though, was a great opportunity for me.”
This year’s class will likely remember two popular teachers, Tommie said: Cherokee Nation member Patti Mitchell, of the Seminole Native Learning Center, who taught financial literacy – starting with budgeting dividends; and superstar tech student Lucas Von Hollen, of FSU’s Florida IT Career Alliance, who proved that engineering a video game is as much fun as playing it.
Tommie said some of the Seminole students also learned the unexpected – that most Indian Country kids outside Florida face uphill battles against poverty and other social problems when they seek college educations.
“Our teens got to see the diversity of other Tribes and what other kids go through. Now they know that being Seminole is different and that adversity is something they don’t really know. They can’t even fathom it,” Tommie said. “Bringing the Nations together and sharing our stories benefits all of us.”
Kyle said the fact that teens from other Tribes struggle to pay for college hit him the hardest.
“It made me think about what I would do without my money. What if the Seminoles run out of money and cut out college?” Kyle said. “It makes me grateful for youth camp because the camp urges me further – to go to college, really learn a lot of things and then bring the knowledge back for the next generation to build on.”