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Going back to college can be a daunting task for many students. For Michael Hunter, 40, fear of math and English classes and a cumbersome registration process were overwhelming. On multiple occasions, he missed key registration deadlines. The turning point came when his daughter entered college, prompting him to start his education journey.

Hunter’s experience was the catalyst for creating Pomo Pathways. “I realized it takes courage to register, sign up for tutoring or see a counselor. I didn’t want others to go through the same thing I did. If no one helps you, it can be very difficult,” he said.

Elected in 2013 as tribal chairman, Hunter leads the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, a federally recognized tribe in California and one of 23 Pomo tribes in the region. He is charged with overseeing and managing the affairs of his community, which include the social, health and economic well-being of tribal members.

Initial conversations on Pomo Pathways started in spring 2017 when Hunter approached Mendocino College to create a program for adult or returning Native American students to ease their transition to college. Within a year the program was developed with input from the Native American community—at the Coyote Valley Education Center, a resource center located on the Coyote Valley Reservation.

“Mendocino College understands the importance of acknowledging Native Americans and mitigating the injustices done to their community,” said Ulises Velasco, vice president of Student Services at Mendocino College. He credits the college for participating in extensive self-reflection to determine ways to better integrate and serve Native Americans.

The program began in the 2018 with a sequence of math, English, public speaking and career and life planning courses. Support services were added to reduce barriers to enrollment and increase retention, including the elimination of enrollment fees, onsite tutoring, and counseling services. When adults with children started attending classes, the program expanded to include childcare as well as breakfast and lunch for both parent and child. Students were also provided with school supplies, textbooks and calculators.

Data shows that the program is making a difference. In fall 2018, the Math 220 course completion rate was 80% for Pomo Pathway students versus 74% for overall Mendocino College students. That same year, the English 200 course completion rate for Pomo Pathway students was 91%, nearly 20% higher than their counterparts.

The program’s success hinged on establishing trust with the Native American community, which was extremely important to them after losing their land and spending years rebuilding their community. Hunter explains, “This county terminated my tribe in the 1950s to build Lake Mendocino. We spent many years fighting the federal government in the 1970s and building our reservation in the 1980s.”

“There’s layers of history, which feels very recent to their community. We are very mindful of that,” said Velasco.

At the request of tribal leadership, Mendocino College leaders attended a United Pomo Nations Council meeting. Debra Pollack, vice president of Academic Affairs, expressed that the participation of top leaders was a critical step to getting the program off the ground.

“This is what was needed to build a bridge. They wanted to know that Mendocino College was truly committed, and the presence of our top leadership at the meeting showed just that,” said Pollack.

Community outreach to students and parents was also an integral part in bridge building. The college conducted student outreach by visiting every local tribe to encourage participation in the program. In May, the college hosted its 33rd annual Motivation Day, attended by 300 Native American students in grades 6-12, to provide them with an opportunity to learn about its programs, meet representatives from local organizations and four-year universities, and promote higher education.

“This is a true community collaboration,” said Velasco. “We recognize that this is their space not ours, and we are committed to the success of Native American students.”

In 2018, the Mendocino College Board of Trustees renamed the college square at the Ukiah campus to “Pomo Plaza” to recognize the presence and history of native people on local land and their contributions. A monument in the plaza lists the local Pomo tribes by name.

Velasco explained, “What we do may not make sense financially, but it is important because it helps deliver on our overall mission.”