Native American youth are improving their chances for success in college and beyond through Konaway Nika Tillicum, a weeklong camp at Southern Oregon University.

Native American youth are improving their chances for success in college and beyond through Konaway Nika Tillicum, a weeklong camp at Southern Oregon University.

The residential Native American academy, open to youth in seventh through 12th grades, teaches writing, theater, math, humanities, culture and other subjects.

"They learn what it takes to succeed in higher education by taking college-level classes," says instructor Brent Florendo, who is also SOU's academic programs coordinator. Fellow instructor David West is director of the Native American Studies Program.

"We bring in native students to inform them what it takes, not just with academics, but to help empower and motivate them in all areas, networking, finances, romantic relationships, balancing stress and dealing with being a minority," says Florendo.

Konaway is an academic camp, not a culture camp, he says. But students, counselors and teachers "do speak the truth about Native American history" and how prejudice and oppression have created a situation in which the suicide rate among American Indians is four times the national average and the school dropout rate is eight times the national average, he says.

The academy also helps build friendships and personal and professional networks. Speakers include past Konaway students who have gone on to earn doctorates and become professors, lawyers, doctors, etc., says head resident Joe Dupris, formerly of Klamath Falls and now working on his doctorate in Native American linguistics at University of Arizona.

"We develop a community of support for students, mostly from Oregon and California," says Dupris, though noting that one student is a Mayan from Guatemala.

Another head resident, Promise Grace, of Hawaii, is in her second year at Konaway and plans on a career as a professor. She notes, "What we're doing is planning for the seventh generation, with the knowledge that our students now need to be the change makers for that to happen."

A Chiloquin native and high school student in Eugene, Paul Wilson is in his fourth year at Konaway.

"It's helped me develop and retain my indigenous identification while in academia," he says, "so I can apply it in school, making it a richer environment for my education. Without doubt, the networks I've made here have motivated me to success. My best friend is a PhD candidate. My life goal is happiness while implementing critical pedagogies in standardized education."

Attendance at Konaway improves grade point averages by at least half a point a year for each year, develops leadership skills and takes away fears of being on a college campus and being isolated as an ethnic minority, according to its SOU page,

A student in the first year of Konaway, 19 years ago, Roseburg native Amanda Mendoza overcame painful shyness, she says, and went on to get her master's degree in special education at SOU. She now teaches it in Beaverton schools.

"Konaway kept me connected to my culture, got me motivated for college and taught me to work outside my comfort zone," says Mendoza, who teaches writing at the academy. "It's super-awesome, a great sense of family with positive role models."

Third-year senior counselor Jet Ward, a Filipino-African-American from Oakland, Calif., says she wants to work with youth, helping natives "break down the wall of stereotypes that America has put on us ... so we can achieve as much as the people who've broken us down."

Doctoral candidate D.J. Worley, a math teacher and regular at Konaway over the last 15 years, said the academy helped him bounce back from being a college dropout.

"I couldn't relate to anyone, but with Konaway, I was inspired. It grounded me," says Worley. "I was able to see other natives go through similar situations and succeed. I developed abstract thinking and critical engagement skills."

The school's name means "All my relations," a traditional Indian honorific, said in the Chinook tongue.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at