For local Native American students hoping to attend community college and gain a degree, the road just got a little bit easier. In an effort to promote higher education and the acquisition of college-level degrees among students at local pueblos and tribes, Santa Fe Community College is offering new scholarships.

"We want to provide a network of support," says Valerie Grimley, student employment manager at SFCC. "We're able to provide that financial support and give our students one less thing to worry about."

A memorandum of understanding that is scheduled to be finalized Friday by tribal leaders and SFCC president Randy Grissom encompasses 11 tribes around Northern New Mexico, including the Navajo Nation, and Cochiti and Nambé pueblos. It outlines that the school will distribute about $5,500 each semester to qualifying students nominated by tribal leadership.

Grimley says that the college population includes about 250 Native American students, but there are issues with retention due to cost and the fact that attending college causes separates students from their families, as well as traditional cultural and religious events, such as dances, back home.

"A lot of us in the Native American community have strong family ties, and that can be something that prevents us from pursuing higher education," says Grimley, who is a member of Cochiti Pueblo. "We're trying to create that support system here on campus so that our students feel comfortable."

The scholarships are open to students of all ages and across all degree programs, and each tribe can nominate either one full-time student or two part-time students for the financial aid. In order to be eligible, students must be enrolled and have at least a 2.0 GPA. Then the individual tribe's education committee will award the scholarship based on need.

"It's a huge collaboration between the tribes and us," says Grimley.

The money, she says, is coming from the SFCC Foundation and will average around $500 for a full-time student and $250 each for the part-time students. The agreement also permits tribes to transfer their award money to students from other communities that may have multiple eligible students in a given semester.

Whereas the deadline for regular scholarship applications at SFCC is May 22, the new tribal program won't issue awards until about three weeks into the next semester.  

Kevin Lewis, the director of education at Cochiti Pueblo, is optimistic about the agreement and the effect it can have for students.

"If we can alleviate some of the financial costs for our students with the memorandum of understanding, they may be more inclined to attend college," says Lewis.

With Cochiti situated in a rural area outside Santa Fe, Lewis says that some of the main issues affecting a student's decision to attend college is the cost of transportation and access to Internet for homework and research. With the scholarship money, Lewis says students can have more funds for transportation and access to educational resources.

Grimley hopes that, if the scholarship program is a success, it can expand to include more tribes around the state.