San Carlos Apache College (SCAC), one of the newest tribal colleges in the U.S., has become a major player in efforts to build an innovative, yet traditional, community college of tomorrow. During a League for Innovation “Community Colleges and Communities: Collective Workforce Development and Wraparound Services” project convening in June 2022, the SCAC team presented a concept that provided new insight to creatively connecting student support services with a college’s community, students, and staff. Hallmarks of this League project include college choice, continual innovation, and supporting institutions in meeting the needs of their students and communities. SCAC’s approach gained interest as a model for looking to cultural traditions to support student success. SCAC’s mission statement—upholding the power of Apache wisdom and knowledge—was used as the foundation for an innovative method of enhancing students’ sense of belonging in a postsecondary environment.

The SCAC mission is reflected in the title of the college’s new approach: Building a Home Together for Lifelong Learning. In this approach, the team conceived and visualized their efforts as building a traditional Apache home structure, called a gowa in the Apache language. They began by acknowledging their cultural teachings to create a stronger and more meaningful approach for students. In the development process, there was a lot of discussion about wanting Apache students to feel that the college is their own, an extension of their heritage that offers support as they venture toward their futures. By providing Apache-centric wraparound student support services, SCAC began to culturally share experiences with students and allow them to reflect on their own personal journeys, which led to the concept of sharing the college as a home.

Apache Philosophy, History, Culture, and Lifeways lecture series poster

The building of an Apache gowa can be conceptualized as weaving an upside-down basket; it is said that every pole in that weave meets at the top, in the middle, and represents a family member. The structure’s strength comes from the hands of the family members represented as they come together to support the home. The vision for SCAC is that each of the gowa’s poles represents a college resource that was created or improved upon to share student support services or enhance the student experience. For example,

  1. SCAC’s new and returning student orientation sessions were restructured around the idea of building a home.
  2. Student food pantries were expanded to three additional visible locations to make them more convenient and to help reduce any stigma around their use, thus reflecting the provision of nutrition to students as in a gowa.
  3. Items like student planners, wall calendars, and college-branded clothing introduced the home concept.
  4. Students were invited to learn to play Apache Cards with elders in the evenings.
  5. SCAC partnered with the San Carlos Wellness Center to host an Apache Philosophy, History, Culture, and Lifeways lecture series, which brought students, their families, elders, and other community members together for a traditional meal, lectures on culturally relevant topics, and Apache storytelling.

The college’s identification of new student opportunities as part of a culturally significant structure was a natural fit. As the many facets of building a home can be refined or be completely different for everyone, the finished product of a completed home marks the impact of the journey and effort. The experiences in building the home and in occupying the home when it’s constructed are what add to its value. The hope is that every year a family lives in its home and experiences more love in it; SCAC staff want the same for their students as they begin their educational journey at the college and are supported and strengthened by the SCAC gowa along the way. Through innovative thinking and strong cultural delivery, the programs and events at SCAC have transformed learning experiences into lifelong lessons that remain a major component of the Apache culture and way of life.


Tia Early
Executive Assistant, Academics
San Carlos Apache College


Lead image: SCAC staff member leads new student orientation


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