Daniels Executive PhD student uses personal struggle to drive research

Gwen Almodovar was attending a funeral in her Native American community in North Carolina when she experienced a tragic moment of déjà vu.

As she chatted with the college-aged young adults in attendance, she realized that only one of them was pursuing higher education.

Further conversation with that college student revealed something that would motivate Almodovar to take a crucial next step in her own academic journey.

“Her struggles mirrored mine over 30 years ago,” said Almodovar, who currently lives in El Paso, Texas. “To me, it was like [our educational system] hadn’t advanced.”

The number of Native American students attending college in the United States are stark, troubling enough to catch the attention of the White House in 2021, when President Joe Biden released an executive order to address the growing inequity.

“It is the policy of my Administration to advance equity, excellence, and justice in our Nation’s education system and to further Tribal self-governance, including by supporting activities that expand educational opportunities and improve educational outcomes for all Native American students,” he wrote.

Gwen Almodovar

Research from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute in 2021 reveals the escalating issue for higher education providers. Only 24% of 18-24-year-old Native American students are enrolled in college, compared to 41% of the overall U.S. population. Additionally, undergraduate enrollment among Native Americans in that same age group decreased from 128,600 in 2016-17, to 116,400 in 2019-20. Postbaccalaureate enrollment decreased from 13,700 in 2016-17 to 13,400 in 2019-20.

Almodovar, a first-generation, Native American student herself, became familiar with the data, and, when she arrived on campus at the Daniels College of Business to pursue an Executive PhD, she knew exactly what she’d focus her research on.

“I’m looking at this through the lens of the students that made it,” she said. “I’m interviewing students to talk about what their journey looked like to get to higher education and what their journey looks like while they are in school.”

As part of her qualitative research, Almodovar is talking with the current generation of Native American students to learn where they’ve struggled and what resources they were missing that may have helped them succeed.

What she’s heard from current students sounds eerily similar to her own college experience. Current students say they aren’t receiving enough college preparation, including standardized testing practice. When they get to campus, they report a lack of resources and support from their schools, and fewer extracurricular opportunities due to their financial situations.

“It’s this same thought process as if it was 30 years ago,” Almodovar said for Native American students considering college. “It’s tragic.”

There are also new challenges that Almodovar is uncovering, including a perceived lack of safety from the students she’s interviewed. Almodovar acknowledged that this may be consistent across students of all backgrounds. Still, she was surprised to hear it.

“The big difference that is emerging in my research is student safety, and I would’ve never thought about that when I went to school,” she said.

Almodovar is aiming to interview 20 students for her research, including some from the University of Denver, to reach the saturation point necessary for her qualitative research. From there, she’ll compile her findings and present her dissertation to a committee before she graduates this summer.

She’s optimistic that her research will help enact change for Native American students and other minority groups that are struggling to reach college campuses. Ultimately, Almodovar said, she wants her research to answer two key questions.

“What tools do we need to offer to support these students to make it to higher education? And when we get them there, what do we need to do to offer additional support?”

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