College Becomes Reality
To end the cycle of poverty through education, Partnership with Native Americans (PWNA) offers scholarships, college grants, emergency funding, college readiness camps, and literacy and school supplies through our American Indian Education Foundation (AIEF) program.
The challenges faced by families living on Indian reservations are many and can dissuade Native youth from pursuing their education. Native American families experience a disproportionate rate of poverty. Higher unemployment rates further complicate students seeking post-secondary education. These challenges contribute to low school attendance and high dropout rates —up to 70 percent in high school — and only 13% earn college degrees.
AIEF increases college access for Native American students. The strengths of the scholarship students funded by AIEF are evident in every sentence of the thousands of essays read and scored by the AIEF Scholarship Committee each year. Common elements include love of family, respect of culture, success in overcoming obstacles and a strong desire to continue their education and support their tribal community.
Vaughn V., a recently awarded student, shared in his AIEF essay, “This scholarship will help me financially but it will also provide me with encouragement. I have chosen a life goal not easily attained. As an individual who has personally suffered from symptoms of poverty, I cannot imagine myself pursuing any other goal.”
Vaughn is a junior attending the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT). He transferred from a tribal college where he nearly completed a Business Administration program but is now seeking a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering. PWNA visited with Vaughn during a recent school break and was honored to learn more about his life and dedicated pursuit of education.
Vaughn’s college career started at Black Hills State University but ended abruptly with the accidental death of his baby son, Jasiah. Just nineteen years old, Vaughn was consumed with grief from this tragic loss and depression developed into thoughts of suicide. Vaughn failed his first semester and ended up withdrawing from second semester. It took several years, intervention after a suicide attempt and the birth of his son, Caleb, for Vaughn to make some serious life choices and change his path.
The campus was empty the day PWNA visited, but Vaughn was in the SDSMT Student Union with an open Calculus book. He shared, “I did not see myself as an engineer growing up. I had no interest in doing math and science. I didn’t see the value in it.” Yet, once he realized Industrial Engineering held the greatest opportunities for him, he moved forward with his plan. Vaughn explained, “It was the best route, but I wasn’t prepared for math and science. I gave up so many times, but I was persistent… and here I am taking Calculus 3 and going onto Differential Equations.”
Another challenge in returning to school was the age difference. “As a non-traditional student, my classmates are 18 or 19 years old. It’s a barrier, but it’s not significant—to me, I have more to prove. I’m mature and take myself seriously."
Vaughn says, “My mom... she was a strong person, raising three children. She’s been my inspiration.” His community is another motivator. “Experiencing poverty first hand, you don’t think anything of it until you’re introduced to a bigger side of society. My motivation is helping my community… there’s a lot we can do… I’m really excited to make some of the changes happen.”
During his first year of college, Vaughn’s financial situation brightened. As a freshman, he learned many organizations want to support Native American students and that student loans should be the last resort. He stated, “I encourage anyone going to college or looking into it to really investigate scholarships and funding opportunities. I heard about AIEF through Google… Normally I would be working full time and taking full credit hours, but I’ve received AIEF and other funding from the Chamber of Commerce, the Udall Foundation, my tribe and NASA.”
Vaughn’s advice for prospective students included: “Apply and get in the door. You need to get to college — it is amazing.” Vaughn recalls receiving the AIEF award letter saying, "I was so excited because it was just a huge relief. Even more touching was getting the card — the Christmas card from this organization — and also getting the gift packages twice a year. To see an organization add a personal touch to the scholarship, it’s a blessing by far.”
Clearly grateful for the AIEF support, Vaughn says “it allows me to be an influential person in my son’s life.” Vaughn’s parting thought for scholarship donors and supporters is, “Thank you — thank you so much! You help people you may never meet. You may read their bio and see their photo, but it’s through your support I can remain in school — I WILL FINISH! It’s become a reality because of your support.”
AIEF has awarded scholarships for more than 2,300 students since the program began in 1997. AIEF added graduate-level scholarships in 2009, funding more than 150 to date. AIEF is purposeful in their recruitment and selection. Native American students are often discouraged by traditional funding streams that tend to seek out “the best and brightest.” AIEF instead looks for the students who have faced challenges and persevered despite adversity, the “best bet” student who will finish college despite lower GPAs and ACT or SAT scores.