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Combating Higher Education from the Reservation

Written by Alexandrea.

Over a decade ago, an article published by Journalstar was released, titled “Nebraska’s lowest-achieving schools.” Nearly half of the schools listed were schools on the reservation. Many children who grow up on the reservation attend these schools and those who choose to pursue higher education tend to struggle with the transition between high school and college. For this reason, I am choosing to tell you my experience on the switch between a small reservation school to a university in one of the largest cities in the Midwest.

For the majority of my life, I attended school on the Winnebago Indian Reservation in the Winnebago Public Schools (WPS) system. While in school, I participated in different extracurricular activities such as One-Act Play, Band, Musical, Speech, and Cheerleading. You can call me a thespian if you’d like, as that’s what my teachers called me in high school. However, behind the curtains and underneath the spotlight, I was a very dedicated student and was determined to get on the honor roll at the end of every semester - which I did achieve for the most part. It wasn’t the satisfaction of getting my name on a list that drove me, it was the rewards that gave me a strong motivation.

WPS has a way of motivating their students differently than most schools, and the reasoning behind it is unfortunate. As we know, a lot of Indigenous families today suffer from systemic issues such as poverty and substance abuse - which are repercussions of historical trauma. It's also one of the reasons why a lot of people don't finish schooling. WPS is aware of this and not only plays the role of an educator but oftentimes chooses to play the role of parent. As a reward for students getting good attendance and good grades, the students who fall into either category or both would win gift cards to different places, some of these gift cards would be for the movie theater whereas others would be for different stores. Sometimes it wasn’t gift cards, other times it was gaming consoles and iPods. Let me tell you, it was always worth it at the end of the semester, getting the satisfaction of one’s determination.

When my senior year came around, I was in the process of deciding which college I would apply for, and ultimately I was stuck between two choices: Wayne State College or the University of Nebraska - Omaha (UNO). It wasn’t a choice of titles, rather a decision on whether I wanted to stay with my friends or not. Eventually, I was able to sit down with UNO’s Native American Outreach Coordinator, Cindy Krafka (whom I now refer to as my second grandmother), and have a conversation regarding my worries about leaving Winnebago. Something that my father used to tell me as I grew up when on the topic of higher education is “Get off the reservation, and go see the world for yourself. The reservation will always be there.” and he wouldn’t be the only one to tell me that.

UNO was the school I wanted, and it wasn’t just the school life that attracted me, it was everything outside of it such as concerts and being able to go to a movie theater that wasn’t miles away from home. One of the biggest blocks for a future college student is the grades one gets on a test, for many this is ACT testing. For me, my ACT testing took place a few days after prom, and unfortunately my after-prom turned into a nightmare finding out that a dear relative was murdered the same night I was out dancing in a ball-gown. So you can imagine that my mind was very cloudy as I was mourning the day I took my ACT test. Knowing that my score could make or break my career was tearing my patience apart and crushing my spirit. Regardless, I pulled through the test with an overall score of sixteen - not perfect in the slightest

Unfortunately, one of the typical future college student fears sank in which is not being able to afford school. Everyone is afraid of debt one way or another and, for teenagers that haven't reached adulthood yet or held their first job, this one was a large step forward. The way to conquer this fear is by getting scholarships and grants. Yet when my spring semester of my senior year at WPS came around, I had yet to apply for a single scholarship.

“Tell us about you and your family.” “Tell us about your leadership experience” “Tell us about a time you faced a challenge and how you conquered it.” The list goes on and on, and these are all writing prompts for nearly every scholarship out there. It felt like I was writing my resume but in essay form. In short, I chose to write about the goal of becoming a substance abuse counselor as, growing up, a lot of the things that have impacted my family and I were related to substance abuse in one way or another. If I could subtract that unhealthy factor from another family, then I would gladly do it so another Indigenous child wouldn’t have to wake up in the middle of the night wondering where their guardians were when in reality they were out partying. It was to get justice for those who faced the same struggles that I have.

Taking a chance, I decided to aim for the gold - on the day of the deadline, I applied for the Susan T. Buffett Scholarship. That was in February. Months passed and I was still very anxious, and hesitant to speak about college in fear that my hopes would be pushed away. Finally, one late afternoon in April, I received an email from the Susan T. Buffett Scholarship Foundation that I had been chosen for a scholarship. They say that the Creator works in strange ways, and everything would fall into place one way or another. This sign, the scholarship, it felt as though it was my approval to pursue higher education at my desired location. I was scared but more than anything I was excited about the future.

In the spring of 2018 I graduated from high school ranked number six out of ten students in my class, and my overall GPA was 3.4. That year seven students from my school had gotten the Buffett Scholarship, which was a new record for WPS. Not to mention my class was also the largest graduating class, which was fifty students.

The first day on the UNO campus was the day I had orientation for the Thompson Learning Community which was UNO’s program for the Buffett Scholarship. I was able to finally tour the campus, however, what held my desire to go to school at UNO was the moment I went to the Milo Bail Student Center and toured the Office of Multicultural Affairs. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would practically live there when I was a fully enrolled student. I was able to see Cindy Krafka’s office, and the moment she saw me she wrapped me in a big hug and told me “Honey I’m so glad to see that you made it! From here on out I will take care of you and make sure that your every need is met.” I would like to think that it was Cindy’s reassurance and support that got me through the transition from home to college.

Months before I would start school I admit I had some complications. My home life wasn’t exactly ideal and regarding taking required tests to get into school such as the English Placement Proficiency Exam (EPPE), my internet wasn’t stable nor strong enough to complete the requirement. Not to mention I had trouble filling out my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). On top of that filling out the application for the dorm life and meal plans was a bit of a pain. Through patience, I was able to figure out how to process everything, and I’m grateful that I did.

Entering college there were a number of things that I struggled with. Eventually after I failed Introduction to Psychology I changed my major from Psychology to English. I struggled to develop study habits, as I never had to study for anything back on the reservation when it came to tests or assignments. However one of the biggest challenges that I believe many can relate to, is creating a space for not just yourself but other Indigenous students can be noticed, and this isn’t just in one place. This could be in your department, building, or workspace. For me, this has been making sure that the Indigenous students here at UNO have a voice.

I mentioned earlier that I would like to become a substance abuse counselor, and at heart this is still very true. However the reason behind that is ultimately to find the truth in why things that are sometimes unexplainable happen. In all honesty, I’ve found my peace in counseling and writing pieces about my past, and speaking up about the issues I’ve faced.

As I write this, I’m a junior at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. I’m studying English as a major, and specifically, my focus is Creative Nonfiction. I’m minoring in Native American Studies and Tribal Management and Emergency Services. I serve as the President of UNO’s Intertribal Student Council and have had lots of different opportunities that I don’t think I would’ve had if I hadn’t chosen UNO.

Lincoln Journalstar, “Nebraska’s lowest-achieving schools” (2010)


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