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Building a sense of community among online Native American students

Portrait of Marleigh Perez, director of student success for Oregon State University Ecampus

As the primary point person for Native American online students, Marleigh Perez provides guidance for prospective and current students from more than 30 states nationwide.

OSU Ecampus student success director Marleigh Perez helps lead effort to support learners from tribal communities

By Jordan Friedman
Dec. 17, 2019

The higher education experience is difficult for many first-generation students to navigate. When you add distance learning to the equation, it can be so overwhelming that underrepresented students often drop out or are too apprehensive to even start.

At Oregon State University Ecampus, Marleigh Perez is dedicated to changing that experience for students who learn online.

How so? She is the primary point person, supporter and advocate for Native American learners from the time they inquire about Oregon State’s online programs until they graduate.

Serving tribal communities

OSU is increasing its outreach to Native communities in Oregon and across the country, enabling tribal members to earn college degrees with the support from culturally competent faculty and staff, scholarships and native community engagement. Learn more »

With a career grounded in helping minority communities navigate the complexities of higher education, Perez – the OSU Ecampus director of student success – is determined to ensure that online students from Native tribal communities feel a strong sense of belonging despite their physical distance from the school.

The students Perez works with are often working full time, many with family commitments, and can benefit from a robust support system. Building a strong relationship with students is something Perez has cherished in her current and previous roles in higher education.

“They’ll connect with me, count on me,” she says. “I still get messages from people that say, ‘Hey, I just want to tell you, I never would have made it through college had I not had you.’ I think that means a lot to me.” Many students she has worked with have come to view her as a secondary parent, with some even referring to her as “mom.”

Perez is inspired in part by her own college experience, when she moved more than 2,000 miles away from her home in Hawaii to Oregon. She found herself being welcomed by others with open arms, allaying her worries of being so far away from her family.

The work she now does pays forward that experience for others. It’s a matter so close to her heart that she’s also writing her dissertation about this feeling of inclusion among online students as she pursues a Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy.

Perez says her research for her dissertation, “Sense of Belonging from a Distance,” will help better inform her work in keeping online students engaged and persistent in completing their degrees.

A key player in student success

OSU Ecampus launched an initiative earlier this year with the Office of Institutional Diversity that gives people from tribal communities increased access to OSU’s online degree programs. The top-ranked programs are backed by culturally competent support and Native community engagement that aim to ensure student success.

“Having worked with students of color for so long in my previous roles, and to hear about their own experiences in higher education … that fueled [my] passion and curiosity and desire to keep doing this work.”

The prospective and current Native online students Perez works with come from more than 30 states. Perez says learning online can be a particularly good option because they can remain with their communities.

“They have obligations there, and they need to stick around. They’re working and supporting families, and they want to pursue more education – their higher education – but they’re not able to leave,” Perez says.

A career grounded in diversity

Before working at Ecampus, Perez worked for eight years with national grant foundations at Oregon State. She collaborated with other research universities to better support underrepresented students who want to enter STEM fields.

“Having worked with students of color for so long in my previous roles, and to hear about their own experiences in higher education, to hear about their challenges … that fueled [my] passion and curiosity and desire to keep doing this work,” Perez says.

One of the most common challenges she says Native American students face online is feeling a sense of community in their classes. She wants students from these communities to know there are opportunities for them to connect with OSU students from similar backgrounds, even from a distance.

And outside of courses, Ecampus students can connect with the university’s Native American Eena Haws through live-streamed events thanks to funding support from Ecampus. And there are several student-run clubs and organizations that they can join.

It’s instances like these – when students feel connected to the school – that Perez knows she’s done her job. It allows her to see her dissertation topic in action, as students gain a sense of belonging no matter where they live.

“That’s where that passion comes from – I want to be that person for some of these students,” Perez says.

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