SANTA FE (KRQE) - Learning how to fly a plane can teach you how to succeed in college. That's the premise of a program at a small university in New Mexico, and it seems to be working.
Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), the only four-year contemporary native arts university in the world, is home to hundreds of Native American college students.
Like university students around the world, many IAIA students find college life difficult to navigate. In fact, almost half of all US college students will ultimately drop out and fail to earn a degree.
The drop out rate for Native American students is about 60 percent.
IAIA Success Coordinator Diane Reyna says Native American students often face more challenges than others.
"We tend to come from more isolated communities. A very, very strong tradition and culture, that at times, can conflict or cause stress," she says.
Looking for ways to keep students on track for success in college, Reyna noticed a local flight school was teaching its student 'pilots' lessons that could also apply to life.
"Such as risk management, preparation, preparing for emergencies, overcoming obstacles, remaining calm in spite of situations that may come up," she observed.
So, Reyna created a special flight school class for IAIA freshmen, with lessons serving as metaphors for navigating college. The idea was to catch new students in their first year of college and to get them thinking in new ways about how to succeed.
"Human beings always need to find similarities, and in education, students need to find the relevancy and similarities that they can rely on," she says.
As she shepherds about a dozen freshmen through a recent classroom session, she morphed checklists used by pilots into student checklists.
"You don't want to forget your keys; you don't want to forget your ID to check out a book from the library."
During a semester of 'ground' school, students must raise their own money for an actual flight lesson in a real plane. Raffles and sales of student art raise the money and soon the young fliers-to-be are off to the Santa Fe airport.
For many, like Cheryl Martin of Acoma Pueblo, it is the first time they have ever been in a plane of any kind, but she has no trouble handling the controls of the aircraft. Her instructor demonstrates and supervises.
"Something that I never thought I would ever do in my life, and here, I did it!" she laughs.
Raymond Trujillo of Laguna Pueblo says the program inspired him to improve his chances of success in college.
"It helped me understand my college experience a little bit better, to plan and be well-organized, to always have a backup plan and be ready for what comes," he adds.
Results of the program are encouraging. After three years at IAIA, the dropout rate for Native American students is down by a third.
For most institute students, this will be the only time they ever pilot a plane, but most say the experience leaves them with a new perspective on college and life.
"My heart won't stop pumping, just really excited you know," says David Early of Laguna and Cochiti Pueblos. "Right now I feel like I could do anything."
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