Roanna Shebala is proud of her bachelor’s degree, in part because she knows other people played a part in helping her obtain it.

The Navajo and Zuni theater artist and poet, who is pursuing her master’s degree at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts — “a long-held dream,” she said — is aware she owes part of her success to school’s scholarship program, which has funded a good portion of her tuition.

“Scholarships are essential for a lot of Indigenous students,” she said. “We usually come from families that live paycheck to paycheck. I came from a family that lived paycheck to paycheck so no way could my family afford to send me to college. So the one thing I had to do was depend on scholarships.”

Knowing the importance of those scholarships, particularly in times of a pandemic, the Institute of American Indian Arts is hosting a virtual scholarship fundraising event, including an art auction, starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

IAIA usually mounts its annual scholarship drive with a dinner, auction and all the social amenities that come with such affairs. This year, however, it’s all virtual, with alums donating artworks for the online auction and a paddle call encouraging supporters to donate to the scholarship fund even if they don’t buy a work of art.

The goal, said Stock Colt, head of the school foundation’s board, is to raise at least $300,000. The financial support is particularly vital this year, he said, when the pandemic may lead a lot of students to consider staying home for a while.

“It’s more acute now with COVID because it could become easier for students not to return to school — especially if they don’t have financial aid,” he said.

He said internal IAIA data shows that students who receive scholarships stay in school at twice the rate of students who do not.

“It’s very important to keep these kids in school,” he said.

IAIA President Robert Martin said officials are expecting a “drop in new students” this coming year because of the pandemic. Last year, nearly 400 students were on campus, while some 100 more took part in some form of online learning programs.

So far, 310 students have registered for school this year. Classes begin in a week or so, and Martin said the college will slowly bring students on campus over time, particularly for hands-on studio art courses, while practicing preventive health measures such as social distancing and the wearing of masks.

Martin said the pandemic has “highlighted the inequalities in terms of health care access and internet access and bandwidth among Native communities. So even though we may see a decrease in enrollment, which we expect, we know there will be an increase in need for scholarships and emergency financial aid for students.”

The institute, one of nearly 40 tribal colleges in the country, initially opened on the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School on Cerrillos Road in the 1960s. It moved to its current location on Avan Nu Po Road in 2000.

Some 80 percent of the college’s students are Native American, but the institute — which offers four-year degrees in studio arts, creative writing, cinematic arts and technology, Indigenous liberal studies and museum studies, among other options — enrolls students regardless of their racial or cultural background.

Martin said scholarship support goes beyond the dollar sign.

“It makes a difference in letting our students know that somebody cares enough about them to help them achieve their academic goals,” he said.

Shebala said she gets that. She recently wrote a poem thanking the institute for helping her with scholarship support.

In part it reads:

“Thank you... for believing in us.

“For seeing the potential in our art —

“For seeing us as creators —

“Thank you for helping us Shape Our Future.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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