Sewa Contreras, a student of the California Indian Nations College, prepares to take a class at the UC Riverside Palm Desert campus on September 9, 2019. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/ USA Today Network)

By Risa Johnson

Enrollment at California Indian Nations College in Palm Desert has nearly doubled to about 70 students in its second year of operation, administrators say.

The plan is to keep growing, with a goal of doubling enrollment each year for the next five years, college founder Theresa Mike said.

Mike noted that Native Americans attend and graduate from college at low rates. The college enrollment rate in 2017 for American Indians was the lowest of any ethnicity group, at 20 percent, compared with 65 percent for Asian young adults and 41 percent of white young adults, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Students of California Indian Nations College prepare to take a class at the UC Riverside Palm Desert campus on September 9, 2019. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/ USA Today Network)

Mike is a member of the Lummi tribe in the state of Washington. Now retired, she previously worked at the Northwest Indian College in Washington state and was a human resources manager for the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians.

When she began to set up meetings at different reservations in the region to talk about plans for the California Indian Nations College, “everybody felt that it was a need,” Mike said.

The two-year community college first offered classes in Fall 2018, founded with seed money from the Twenty-Nine Palms tribe. Almost all of the students are from the Coachella Valley, and most are Native American, according to administrators. The college is open to all and scholarships are available.

Sewa Contreras, a student of the California Indian Nations College, prepares to take a class at the UC Riverside Palm Desert campus on September 9, 2019. (Photo: Omar Ornelas/ USA Today Network)

The majority of students in Fall 2018 were recipients of the Theresa A. Mike Scholarship, said Robert Przeklasa, vice president of academic affairs.

“In all of the subsequent terms we have been in a position to offer the students grants to cover their fees,” Przeklasa said by email. “It is something we hope we can continue to do, but will depend on our fundraising.”

There are nine staff members, including six faculty, for this term. Administrators said they are actively trying to recruit more Native American instructors, but it has been a challenge to find candidates in the area.

For now, the college is “piggybacking” off of the College of the Desert’s accreditation, offering essentially the same classes and degrees. That is until the California Indian Nations College receives its own accreditation, which administrators hope to have in five to 10 years.

Administrators said they expect to receive 501(c)(3) certification by the end of 2019.

The school is operating out of the University of California, Riverside, extension campus in Palm Desert, with classes offered at night. There are plans for California Indian Nations College to eventually have a permanent campus of its own.

Who is attending the college? Meet some of the school’s first students:

Marguerite Pablo, a student at California Indian Nations College poses for a photo in Cabazon, Calif. on Friday, August 23, 2019. (Photo: Vickie Connor/The Desert Sun)

Name: Marguerite Pablo

Age: 62

Tribal affiliation: Enrolled member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians

Residency: Morongo reservation

Major: Awarded associate’s degrees in behavioral science and humanities in May 2019. Plans to transfer to UC Riverside to earn a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies.

Why California Indian Nations College: Pablo said she was “hooked” by the name of the college alone. Also, several of her cousins were signing up for classes. Pablo was attending Mount San Jacinto College at the time and found out her credits could transfer.

Standout memories: One of her favorite classes was on race and ethnicity.

“We were able to speak our minds and we didn’t have to feel like we were limited in what we could say and what we could bring to the table,” she said.

Aspirations: Pablo said she does not want or need a job at this point in her life. She is going to school to better herself and be able to pass on knowledge to her children, ages 38 to 43, and grandchildren about their culture.

Community affiliations: She serves on the election committee for the Morongo tribe and on the executive board of Malki Museum Inc. “A lot of my dreams are coming true,” Pablo said, adding that working for her tribe had always been a goal of hers.

Randy Avila (Photo: Risa Johnson/The Desert Sun)

Name: Randy Avila

Age: 41

Tribal affiliation: Enrolled member of the Klamath Tribes in Oregon

Residency: Cathedral City

Major: Completing an associate’s degree in liberal arts. Undecided on future bachelor’s degree.

Why California Indian Nations College: There was no “shock factor,” Avila said. The teachers and staff are approachable and it also helps that the school is local, he said.

One main reason Avila is going back to school is that he wants to inspire his children, ages 8 and 12, to go to college. He wants a better life for them.

“They’re already looking forward to it,” he said, of college. “I missed the opportunity when I got out of high school.”

Standout memory: Watching and discussing the classic movie “Casablanca,” a film that he and many of his classmates had never seen, in an introductory film class.

Aspirations: Avila is not sure what he will pursue for a major as he studies for a bachelor’s degree, but knows he wants to find work that enables him to help families. “I always see the better in people and I want to help,” he said.

Community affiliations: Athletic director for a local youth sports league, volunteer at local schools.

Treasure Welmas poses with a picture of her father at her home on the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians reservation on Aug. 14, 2019. (Photo: Risa Johnson/The Desert Sun)

Name: Treasure Welmas

Age: 60

Tribal affiliation: Cabazon Band of Mission Indians

Residency: Cabazon Band of Mission Indians reservation

Major: Plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in business after earning her associate’s degree from the California Indian Nations College. She said her tribe will cover the cost of her bachelor’s degree.

Why California Indian Nations College: Welmas previously attended nursing school while in her 30s, but stopped short of graduating when she gave birth to twins. She decided to go back to school last fall because she now had the time, after raising four children and helping raise her four grandchildren. Previously, she worked several jobs at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino.

Welmas found that she already knew several of her fellow students at the college. “I felt really comfortable there,” she said. “There’s a lot of different ages, starting from like 19 to 62.”

However, Welmas admitted that she considered dropping out after the first semester.

“I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Welmas said. “It’s back to school and it’s a lot, computerwise and stuff. I had to brush up on everything. But I did it, and I’m still doing it, so I can show people, my people, you can still do it no matter what.”

Teachers take a “hands on” approach that works well with many students who are more shy by nature, she said. “They come toward us with the learning abilities that we have,” Welmas said. “They make it easy for us to stay because we get a lot of help.”

Standout memory: “When you get there, you’re just happy,” Welmas said. “You just find yourself wanting to go, wanting to learn.”

Aspirations: “I want to help my tribe, the business part,” she said. Welmas said she sees a need for more tribal employees who are tribal members themselves.

Risa Johnson covers Native American affairs in the Coachella Valley and beyond. She can be reached at or (760) 778-4737. Follow her on Twitter @risamjohnson

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