'The people's house': A support network for Native American students living on campus

A man and a women smile while standing next to one another in front of a building with the word "YAVAPAI" on the front.

Siblings Robyn and Noah Nelson live together in the O'odham Ki: Living Learning Community housed within the Yavapai dorm. A senior, Robyn first started in O'odham Ki: during her first year. Noah moved into O'odham Ki: at the start of the fall semester.

Logan Burtch-Buus/University Communications

Growing up in a rural community, Shanae Dosela knew she might experience some culture shock when she moved from the Bylas district of the San Carlos Apache Reservation to attend the University of Arizona. What she didn't expect was to find a "home away from home" during her first days on campus.

Dosela developed that sense of belonging when she moved into O'odham Ki: Community, a Living Learning Community for Native American students currently located in the Yavapai dorm.

O'odham Ki: is one of many Living Learning Communities, or LLCs, on the UArizona campus. Each community is located within a specific dorm, providing a designated living space for residents who have shared academic goals or cultural backgrounds. Communities are staffed by resident assistants, who receive specific training to foster a sense of community and who often share a cultural or academic background with current residents – or are themselves former residents.

There are a dozen LLCs across the UArizona campus, including the Building Leaders & Creating Knowledge (B.L.A.C.K.) Community, Marsha's Place (LGBTQ+2S) Community, Outdoor Adventures Community and Cambium: STEM Scholars Community.

Most of the academic-based communities are open only to first-year students, although cultural communities such as O'odham Ki: are open to any student. Members are assigned a living space within the community's dorm.

"If you grew up on a reservation, there is a huge difference between living there versus a city and being away from your family. Within the Native American community, it is very family oriented, and community based – and when you're away from that community, it's very important to find it again," Dosela said. "O'odham Ki: has significantly impacted my experience, because I did find a sense of community and I felt like there was somewhere I really belonged on campus."

A woman wearing a pink, Native American-style blouse and necklace smiles.

Shanae Dosela

Logan Burtch-Buus / University Communications

Now in the midst of her senior year, Dosela credits the relationships she has made over the last four years for not only her academic success but also her ability to maintain a sense of cultural identity while nearly 150 miles from the rest of her family.

"It has been very cool to meet over the years all the Native American students, staff, faculty and elders – because elders are very important to Native American and Indigenous communities – and that they have all created a sense of support," she added. "That has really helped for me, personally, because tradition is very central to my identity and to a lot of Native American identities. That goes back to our creation stories, where we came from and how we came into being. To have that here is very special."

'The people's house'

Each community partners with an academic or cultural resource center on campus to provide its residents with additional support, cultural resources, access to on-campus events and a greater sense of shared identity. O'odham Ki: was one of the first Living Learning Communities established on the UArizona campus. O'odham Ki, meaning "the people's house" in the Tohono O'odham language, first opened its doors in 1993 in collaboration with Native American Student Affairs – an organization that provides culturally sensitive academic counseling and support services to Native American and Alaskan Native students.

Three decades later, support of the academic, cultural and social needs of students is still at the core of O'odham Ki: – and all of the work performed by Native American Student Affairs, said interim director Julian Juan.

Juan said the organization – also known as NASA – is a community intended to support all Native-identifying students, not a specific tribal affiliation or person. NASA provides a safe place where students can find community and where the Native communities of Tucson can connect with students.

"For a lot of students, even if they are not first-generation students, coming to the University of Arizona can be a culture shock," Juan said. "You're away from your support system, you may be the only Native student in your class, you may not know where to find community. It can be tough. We want to affirm their experiences, to help them to meet one another and connect to resources on campus – that is what we try to instill in O'odham Ki:.

“Research shows that when students have these support systems, not just in the classroom but outside as well, it positively impacts their persistence and their retention. And from the stories that students tell us, we know O'odham Ki: is having a positive effect."

Fostering a sense of community within O'odham Ki: starts with a traditional blessing and group meal at the beginning of each semester, known as the O'odham Ki Early Move-In. NASA invites Native elders from throughout Southern Arizona to bless the living space, and the ceremony is open to student, staff, faculty and community members at large.

Throughout the school year, NASA works with O'odham Ki: resident assistants to host study sessions and group meals, provide access or referral to resources on campus, and sponsor student-led clubs and organizations meant to enrich the experience of Native Americans on campus.

Creating community

Leading that coordinated effort between the cultural center and O'odham Ki: is Olene Smith, a graduate assistant with Native American Student Affairs and a previous resident of O'odham Ki: who transferred to UArizona from Northern Arizona University.

When she first moved to Tucson, Smith said she wanted to become more involved with the local Native American community. Meeting the staff at NASA and moving into O'odham Ki: presented the perfect opportunity.

"All of their programming during the first week of school really helped me, especially because I was coming to a new campus," Smith said. "NASA really was my home away from home. Being on campus and not being able to travel home every weekend – it was a good experience to be involved with NASA."

Smith said living in O'odham Ki and working with NASA helped her find the sense of belonging and community for which she longed, and now she wants to return the favor to other Wildcats through her work.

"Native American Student Affairs is a home away from home that provides students help, resources and fun social events to build community," Smith said. "We create connections in the events that we do and include graduate students and community members to help undergraduate and new students become familiar with those individuals. We want them to know there is a community here at UArizona."

Much like her O'odham Ki: neighbor, Dosela, senior Robyn Nelson knew she would encounter a variety of social and cultural differences at UArizona.

She was excited for the change in scenery.

Growing up in Northern Arizona in the city of Page, Nelson said she was excited to see more of the world. She first saw the red brick of UArizona on a high school field trip and was soon introduced to a cousin attending the university. It wasn't long before O'odham Ki: was on Nelson's radar, and she has lived in the community her entire time on campus.

The joy and success Nelson found in O'odham Ki: and at UArizona made an impression on her family. She is spending her senior year living with her younger brother, Noah Nelson, who moved in with her at the start of the semester.

"O'odham Ki: is a home away from home," she said. "And it's not just us Navajo, it's everybody else, too. It's Tohono O'odham, Hopi, Pueblo – we all get to share this space and our traditional, cultural values. If I were to live somewhere else, I wouldn't have the friends I have now – and that comfortable feeling. O'odham Ki: helped me flourish and become the best student I could."