Native American student enrollment is growing at Western Nevada College with a 22 percent increase within this demographic over the past year. At WNC, 2.14 percent of the college’s 3,528 students are Native American. That’s actually above 2020 state census data that shows that 1.7 percent of all Nevadans are Native American.
So why has WNC seen a spike in its Native American numbers, and what is Western doing to intentionally drive this growth? Lorraine Plympton, a Washoe Tribe member who graduated from WNC in 1997, says a number of factors — including financial incentives — are contributing to the increase in Native American students at WNC.
“It is a really good time to be Indigenous and attend college — that is a fact,” Plympton said. “There is opportunity for Native students to get financial assistance to attend college with the State of Nevada passage of the Native Fee Waiver for Nevada tribes and the Native First Scholarship has assisted some students with funds needed this fall semester. We need more financial support for Native students and that, too, is a fact.”
Plympton works at WNC in the college’s Admissions and Records department. She started WNC’s Native First scholarship this fall, by donating from her own paycheck each month because she knows firsthand that financial barriers are the No.1 reason preventing these students from venturing into higher education. Since its inception, the Native First Scholarship has attracted many more community donations inspired by Plympton’s determination and generosity.
WNC also has several other factors working in its favor to drive enrollment for Native Americans:
• The location of its campuses is convenient to rural tribal people.
• Class sizes are small and desired programs are offered.
• Social media has spread the word about financial incentives and opportunities at WNC.
• Native American students are coming back to their tribal communities and sharing their experiences from WNC.
But Plympton said that one of the most influential factors in the enrollment increase could be the service and welcoming support they are receiving at WNC.
“There is an open door policy here,” she said. “If a student can come through the door and find the answers they are seeking easily and have friendly welcoming staff to assist them that too is a contributing factor in their retention. With more dedicated staff to work individually with students that is the recipe for success for Native students at WNC. If the student finds their answers reasonably quickly and easily, they spread the word and come back.”
Native American students are also forming friendships with their peers at WNC. Over the summer, WNC established an Indigenous Student Association advised by Sylvia Verdugo, WNC Division Assistant for Professional and Applied Technology. This has created a sense of community on campus and provided an educational support system to WNC’s Native students through cultural events and congregating to establish a presence on campus.
"The Indigenous student Association and other Native initiatives are focused around creating a sense of community on campus. We strive for attending college to be a great experience, and knowing there are people on campus who care about their success and are there to support them can make all the difference,” Verdugo said. “We need student participation and student feedback or communication to let us know how we can better serve them.”
Verdugo said that the ISA is very inclusive and knows that the association she has started can make a difference in whether a student feels welcome at WNC.
“It is important to mention that we welcome all nations and all mixed students. If they identify as being Indigenous, we welcome them into our events and we honor their unique contributions to our campuses,” she said.
With WNC making Native American students feel welcome on its campuses, they will gain something that has long been missing for this population.
“Above all else, we have to gain the trust of the Indigenous communities,” Plympton said.
As the numbers attest, that seems to be taking place at WNC.