OF THE MIND
TECH INSTRUMENT CENTER
TO BLACK MOUNTAIN
MAY UNLOCK MAD COW DISEASE
SPEECH WASN'T FREE
Academic success. Do those words mean the same thing to everyone?
Patricia Covarrubias, a UM communication studies assistant professor, is studying how students — especially American Indian students — can obtain academic success by researching how they actually define the term.
"Academic success, like all terms, is defined differently depending on people's socio-cultural backgrounds," Covarrubias says. "Assuming that the concept of academic success means the same thing to everyone is like trying to view the world through the same set of binoculars, and this is not a productive approach. We need to focus on the definitions of terms and concepts first to make sure we are all talking about the same thing and not speaking at cross-purposes."
She says the University can get to know its American Indian students better by studying how they define academic success. "Any time we understand what terms, phrases and corresponding concepts mean to people, we are better positioned to identify and define problem areas."
Covarrubias has recruited students to participate in her study personally, by word-of-mouth and through fliers. Her work involves ethnographic observation and extensive interviews lasting from one to three hours. Following interviews, Covarrubias transcribes the taped sessions verbatim and then conducts a data analysis of results.
When examining this material, she looks for recurring communicative patterns from individuals and across groups. Her final report will tell the story through many different voices.
When it comes to defining academic success, Covarrubias says, there generally is a striking difference between how European Americans and American Indians speak about the concept. A typical European American might say academic success is "achieving good grades through hard work or achieving somewhat good grades through little work."
However, she says American Indians often define academic success differently. A typical answer might be "learning all I can learn to go back and help my people." In one instance she received a response from an Indian student who said he wanted "to get out of here and make some money." That student also admitted he "was different."
One large cultural difference Covarrubias has uncovered is that American Indians stress their ties with their families and communities. They don't tend to suspend their family life for four years while attending the University.
As an example, she tells of a student who missed an assignment to go home to fix her brother's hair for the prom. This was important to the student, she says, but most European American students couldn't fathom missing an assignment for such a reason.
"For Native students, much of their personal resources are their
connectedness with people, especially their families," she says. "We
need to understand the cultural impulses behind students' actions to understand
behaviors, and we can understand those impulses by listening carefully to how
Native students speak about academic success and any
Covarrubias has found common troubles for American Indian students. The University doesn't always seem welcoming, she says, and there is a longing to be home. Also, at home Indian students often know everyone and have always had a role. But at college, they are anonymous and their roles aren't always clear.
Covarrubias hopes her study will help UM understand the cultural differences of its students and foster academic success for a broader spectrum of students.
"We have much to learn from Indian students here at UM," she says. "If we cannot learn from one another here — at a venue fundamentally designed for learning — where can we do it?"