Indigenous Peoples' Day celebration at the University of Oregon honoring tribal communities and sharing their history and traditions.
CNN  — 

The University of Oregon celebrated National Indigenous Peoples Day by announcing a new program that will cover tuition and fees for Indigenous tribal members residing in Oregon.

The Home Flight Scholars Program was launched Monday and will immediately allow the estimated 150 to 175 eligible self-identified American Indian/Alaska Native undergraduate students on campus to receive financial assistance.

“The Home Flight Scholars Program tackles the unique challenges these students face and prepares them to graduate with an education and the experience that empowers them to return home and make a positive impact in their communities and for their families,” said the school’s interim president Patrick Phillips in a news release.

The goal of the program, according to the university, is to combat the three biggest issues Indigenous students face: financial issues, academic difficulties, and the struggle to connect with their culture.

“With Home Flight, we can provide academic and social guidance that will compliment tribal educational values,” the university’s assistant vice president Jason Younker said in the release. “We hope that each graduate will consider returning to their home reservations and become future stewards and leaders within their communities.”

Younker, who joined the university as its first formal governmental liaison to the nine federally-recognized tribes of Oregon, is a member of the Coquille Indian Tribe and lead efforts to pitch and develop the Home Flights program.

“Most of us have grown up wondering whether we were going to be able to afford college, or whether going to college or staying home is our choice,” Younker explained. “But each of us has had ancestors that sacrificed and survived so that we could have the choices that we do today. The choice should be where to go to college, not if we can go to college.”

The program was created in consultation with the university’s Native American Advisory Council and is made possible by federal, state, and institutional grants, according to the university.

Along with financial assistance, the initiative also created a new American Indian/Alaska Native Academic Adviser position and will provide a variety of services, from mentorship and counseling to tribal jobs and future graduate study opportunities.

Students can apply for the Home Flight Scholars program beginning October 17.

‘Every university has a responsibility to Indigenous students’

The state’s university system also implements its own grant program – the Oregon Tribal Student Grant – which covers tuition, housing, books, and other educational casts for Indigenous students who are enrolled members of one of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes.

What makes the Home Flight Scholars program special is it will cover tuition and fees for students who are enrolled in any of the 574 federally recognized tribes throughout the US, as long as they live in Oregon.

“It’s a huge deal,” Megan Lynn Van Pelt, a 22-year-old student and co-director of the university’s Native American Student Union, told CNN. “It means being a normal student for once. Overall I’m really happy. We shouldn’t be worrying about fees, we should be worrying about homework and finals.”

Van Pelt, a member of the Confederated Tribe of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, is a recipient of the Oregon Tribal Student Grant. Although she will not need the Home Flight scholarship, Van Pelt says she knows many people who do.

“This should be implemented everywhere,” she said. “Even during my community college experiences, students were struggling to make ends meet. This will not only benefit first generation students, but also think about how many nontraditional students will be returning to school because of the UO Flight program.”

Like Van Pelt, many Indigenous students at the University of Oregon come from rural and low income areas, and usually rely on federal and tribal scholarships to keep themselves in school, according to the school’s Native American and Indigenous Studies director Kirby Brown.

The purpose of the Home Flight program, he says, is to remove the burden, so students can focus on their studies and futures without worrying that money will be the reason why they don’t cross the finish line.

And the initiative means so much more than just financial aid, Brown, a tribal citizen of Cherokee Nation, said. It’s a symbol of justice.

“Tribal people who were removed from their homelands by the federal government or military had treaty negotiations where they specifically asked and demanded educational resources for their children and grandchildren,” he explains.

“For an Oregon university to finally implement this program more than 170 years after the state became a territory is huge, to be held historically accountable to those treaties and provide what the ancestors of these students fought and sacrificed their lives and land for.”

Now, his hope is other universities throughout the US will follow their lead, and ensure no Indigenous student is unable to attend college because of financial difficulties.

“Our philosophy is that every college campus, public or private, in the US is on Indian land. We absolutely hope every university will take our lead,” Brown said. “We feel every university has a responsibility to Indigenous students, being built on land that was forcibly taken from their tribes and used to benefit universities, counties and states who founded themselves on Indigenous resources.”