Unable to sleep one night, Dustin Marrow scrolled through his Facebook feed. He stopped when he saw an ad for an Ojibwe-language program at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus.
"It was completely in Ojibwe, and it was a bunch of other students," he said. "It just seemed effortless, and I was like, 'Oh man, this is where I want to go.'"
Marrow is 33 and a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a tribal nation headquartered in Northwest Wisconsin. Marrow grew up on the LCO reservation and had studied Ojibwe at the LCO Ojibwe Community College, but what he could immerse himself in at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities was different. The American Indian Studies Department there is the oldest in the nation. There is the Circle Of Indigenous Nations (COIN), an academic and social support office where students can get tutoring, meet Native mentors through an elders-in-residence program, and participate in on-campus ceremonies and events with other Native students from across the country.
"There's such a huge base of second-language learners and support for people like me who want to work on this kind of stuff," Marrow said. "Back home on the reservation, you would expect that, and there is support for it, but I feel like, leaps and bounds, this is ahead of that."
He is among a small but growing number of Native students attending the school, and he's on track to be among a growing number graduating there. Between 2008 and 2018, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities' six-year graduation rate for American Indian and Alaska Native students more than doubled, from 27 percent to 69 percent. Nationally, Native students have a six-year graduation rate of 39 percent. The six-year graduation rate for all students at public universities in 2018 was around 47 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Caroline Preston, a senior editor at The Hechinger Report, has looked into the University of Minnesota's graduation gains and says there's not a single answer for how they've more than doubled the graduation rate among these students within the last decade.
"The university, for a while, has had a lot of academic and social supports in place to make these students feel more welcome on campus," she said. "Also, the university has, from sort of 2008 to today, become more selective. So students overall may be coming in more prepared and more able to handle the work as well."
But, she says, students still say the university has a long way to go. The number of Native students on the campus has grown in the last decade, but they still represent less than 1 percent of the students at the university. Native students are among the least likely of any demographic group to enroll in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"Students I talked to, many of them were surprised by how white the campus was," Preston said. "Many other students I talked to had to deal with a lot of ignorance on the part of other students and insensitive questions, sort of having to be someone who speaks for your entire culture. And, you know, it can be very frustrating and alienating."
Marrow says the academic resources and support that drove him to pick the school didn't completely make up for the culture shock.
"I grew up on the rez," he said. "Never really left. It's actually kind of daunting for someone to leave there for the first time, especially coming from a very rural area into the city."
He credits COIN and the American Indian Student Cultural Center on campus for helping him navigate campus and find community.
"If those spaces weren't here, I don't know if I would have succeeded," he said. "I don't think I would have made it past the first semester."
It also helped that his roommate from back home decided to enroll at the university, too. Together they're helping to pilot an immersion house, where students studying Ojibwe will live together and speak to one another only in Ojibwe.
"Three semesters later," Marrow said, "we're here."