50. It’s a big number. 1. It’s a small number. Neither is insignificant. Today, I celebrate 50 amazing trips around the sun, reflecting on the last 1 – – helping to grow Indigenous Education, Inc., the home of the Cobell Scholarship Program. Like the late Elouise Cobell (Yellow Bird Woman), we didn’t set out to do this big thing – we only wanted to serve Native students in higher education in a different way. Indigenous Education, Inc. is well on its way to being “the scholarship different.”
It’s been a fast-moving first year in comparison to my last 50. Like many successful organizations, we opened business in a back yard casita sharing desks and seating only to build capacity to our new location in a professional building in the uptown area of Albuquerque, New Mexico with a staff of 7 thoughtful and dedicated individuals who always seek to do more. The location – in the high desert, in Albuquerque, on the 8th floor – are all visible cues that lead to our mission of “elevating” the experience of Native students in higher education which is symbolized by the logo of a yellow bird. The late Elouise Cobell is the namesake for the organization and her traditional Blackfeet name translates to Yellow Bird Woman. It is critical that we continue her legacy of Native leadership, engagement, and critical inquiry while working through what is known as the Cobell Settlement. When the settlement is completed and Indian Country moves on to the next challenges for our communities, the Cobell Scholarship Program will hold the active memory of Elouise. For this reason, we will begin to ask applicants and scholars to research Elouise and the Settlement before responding to new essay prompts. We are not just a scholarship. We are a legacy. We are a memory. We are the Scholarship Different.
As a young boy, and through my undergraduate years in college, I planned my life around the thing I knew would make a difference in my community. I would be a teacher. My parents could see education was in my future. My Auntie Resa inquired of my progress toward this goal every time we met. My sisters encouraged me. Former teachers and friends were all certain I’d end up a teacher on the rez. Last week I read of the death of a woman whose position I filled in my first professional position. Linda would go on to work for a new, at the time, prestigious scholarship, and I would begin my career in higher education – never to be a classroom teacher.
I found great satisfaction and joy in recruiting students to the University of North Dakota. Under the tutelage of Dr. Leigh Jeanotte and Dr. Donna Brown and alongside (another) Linda, Mikki, Bridget, Alan and Darlene I learned housing, counseling, academic advisement, financial aid, registration, transfer processes, grant writing, presentation skills and a myriad of other student services. I believe my role was to be focused on getting Native students to college but we all knew “our” students and their families trusted us to guide them through persisting to graduation. Rarely was there a day I would wake up saying “I have to go to work today.” In that first professional job I came to understand the privilege it is to say “today, I get to go to work” because of the work I do.
My career has taken me through state government, tribal colleges, a research one institution, national scholarship provision and led me to the ability to help create Indigenous Education, Inc. My engagement in community has allowed me to participate in a wide variety of reviewing processes, board membership, presenting, and mentoring. Over the years I noted what students appreciated, preferred and struggled through. Native students pursuing or attending higher education have specific needs and wants; therefore, Indigenous Education, Inc. staff work daily to be the “Scholarship Different.”
Different means responding quickly and thoroughly to all inquiries. Students are often in panic mode and cannot wait weeks for a response. We may not always get it exactly right, but students always know someone is on the other end of the conversation. The staff we have assembled brings me ideas that come directly from students – in-system categorizing and communications that tell a student what is happening with their application or scholarship, a chat function utilized by all staff to instantly respond, email addresses with specific purposes that reach all staff, social media tools that reach a variety of audiences, web designing skills to update a website quickly and reduced paper-production for tribes, institutions, students and the organization. The latter also expedites processes for all stakeholders and reduces our printing costs. Tribes work with us to validate their members. Colleges and Universities work with us to provide financial aid information electronically. Students upload transcripts and other documents online and staff evaluate most of it without printing a single piece of paper. We are often told that Native people are the keepers of the earth and this is our small contribution.
Indigenous Education, Inc. provides scholarship through a highly competitive process. Applicants must have minimum GPA’s of 3.0 (in some cases, higher), be engaged in community, exhibit leadership history or potential, have strong well-written responses and demonstrate knowledge of the Cobell Settlement and the work of Elouise Cobell. Applications are reviewed by external reviewers who donate valuable time to selecting the most competitive scholars. Once provided an offer, Finalists’ institutions must provide a positive Unmet Need as determined through submission of a FAFSA; and, prove membership in a U.S. Federally-Recognized Tribe. Once all documents are submitted, Finalists become Scholars (those with no demonstrated Unmet Need receive letters of Honorable Mention), and awards are processed to the institution on record. It’s a lengthy process with many moving parts but we welcome inquiries along the way.
The reflections of 50 years remind me that in the year I was born, American Indians were not attending college in very high numbers. Today, in the Indigenous Education, Inc. very minimal databases, we show nearly 10,000 Native students seeking financial assistance. I’d venture a guess that the past 50 years have elevated Natives in higher education. But, I won’t have to guess much longer because we have just opened a Department of Research of Student Success that’s already working on data provision, among other things.
This, my first blog, should be the longest; it has, after all, been 50 years in the making. I wasn’t able to touch on the impact of 2 daughters, 4 grandsons, grand-puppies, a husband and a Master’s degree have had on me. Nor did I discuss engagement in professional organizations, community events, traditional teachings and overall life experiences. Those may come in time, in smaller blogs.
Welcome to Indigenous Education, Inc.’s blog where you’ll learn more about what we do and why we do it in the coming weeks and months.
Melvin E. Monette-Barajas
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
Executive Director and President of Indigenous Education, Inc.
Home of the Cobell Scholarship