As a member of the College Advisory Council, Dolores Herrera was instrumental in planning the institution’s future. As a transitional coordinator for the Mescalero schools, she helped students plan their futures. Each role illustrates how education is both a means and an end for area residents. Her tenure as college advisor began with Dr. Miller in the 1990’s and she worked with Mescalero students for nine years. One of the changes she observed has been more students preparing for college earlier. This shift is due in part to the efforts of educators like Herrera and ENMU-Ruidoso’s Devonna James, Student Advisor/Dual Enrollment Specialist.
Education is a priority in Mescalero. Teaching culture as a way of preserving it is an integral part of the classroom experience. The effort to revitalize the Apache language is an example. With fewer than 200 fluent native language speakers on the reservation, a dictionary, grammar and multimedia archive is being developed as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. Other language and culture preservation programs are also being promoted within the schools. Children as young as three and four years old are required to speak Apache in the classroom. For older students, credits in Apache are required for high school graduation. Outside of the classroom, 80 hours of community service is also required. Herrera’s “Serve and Learn” program begins in the sixth grade. In this program, some students chalk up as many as 100 hours of service. A $500 scholarship, redeemable for ten years, is also included. As a result of this practice of requiring students to perform acts benefiting the community, teaching culture and history and offering financial backing, many Mescalero students have a head start on college even before entering high school.
Preparing students for the future does not end in high school. ENMU-Ruidoso’s dual enrollment program allows juniors and seniors to earn college credit while attending both academic and career tech classes. Students must have a 2.5 or higher GPA and permission from a high school counselor. An Accuplacer or ACT test score must be on file. “A student goes through the same admissions policy as a regular ENMU-Ruidoso student,” explained James, “They are required to fill out an additional, State Dual Enrollment form that the state uses to monitor who has been a dual credit student for any of the other schools that we’ve signed a Master Agreement with. Those schools are Corona, Carrizozo, Capitan, Ruidoso, Hondo, Mescalero and Cloudcroft.”
Students are encouraged to take college transfer at classes Mescalero High School. “We have it set up where the school’s instructors who are accredited by the College are teaching dual credit class in the high school. So they have worked with us and we have approved their syllabi and they are working with the department chairs. They are covering everything that we teach here in English 102 or 211, Math 107 or 119 or History 101 or 102. Those are dual credit classes that are also college classes,” said James.
Dual credit technical classes are also taught in welding, culinary arts, family/consumer science, natural resources and certified nursing assistant. These classes are taught in the high school and are transferable as college credit. It is possible to graduate from high school with a two-year college certificate that stands its own right or can be rolled into a four-year bachelor’s degree. As an added incentive, ENMU-Ruidoso waives the tuition, and the textbooks are provided by the high school.
Herrera’s personal ties to Mescalero allowed her to see trends and changes. She saw students who have been out of school returning, even if they are a few years older than anyone else in the classroom. “It’s not enough to have a GED. Employers, even the military, are looking for more,” she explained. Much of her focus was the creation of an environment where people feel comfortable to come back to school. “Sometimes, life gets in the way. I know it firsthand. It’s okay. But education is key. We don’t care where you go to school, just go.” She was helped in convincing people to continue their education by her family connections on the reservation. “I have two adult kids… and 200 children,” she laughed, motioning to the south.
Family plays an important role in educational decisions in the Apache culture. Just how much became apparent when the new elementary and high schools were built. It was hoped by many in the community that all tribal members would attend the new schools. Instead, some continued to attend Ruidoso while others attended Tularosa schools. Where a student ends up is largely dependent on where family members went to school. The same schism exists when it comes to colleges. Families that went to NMSU tend to see their children go to Alamogordo or Las Cruces, while those who chose ENMU go to Ruidoso or Portales. “Children look up to their parents,” said Herrera. “The elders are respected and their words mean a great deal. The elders, in turn, look to the children as the future of the tribe.”
Ties that run across families and down through generations are embedded in the culture, even as shifts in the goals and outlooks of individuals are taking place. Herrera related the story of a New Mexico politician who was visiting the fish hatchery and asked some young people what they wanted to be. Several years earlier in the same place, asking the same question to different young people, the answers leaned towards getting a job on the ground floor of one of the many tribal enterprises. This time, the occupations offered included being a doctor, a lawyer and a teacher. Herrera admitted that progress may be slow, but it is happening and that it is in large part due to the efforts of people like James. “We may be late bloomers,” she said, “but we are blooming.”