ALUM | January Tobacco, 2013

January Tobacco

January Tobacco’s life has taken her from the plains of Pine Ridge to the bustle of Stanford University, and back again—in a full circle. She has returned to Red Cloud to serve as its second Director of Student Advancement & Alumni Support, a role that give her the chance to help Red Cloud students pursue their dreams in college.

January knows those struggles all too well. During her time at Stanford, she lost her mother—and then made the decision to legally adopt her niece. Yet in the wake of that shattering loss, she returned to Stanford and, while also raising a child, finished her degree. Now she is drawing on her own experience and knowledge to give the next generation of Red Cloud graduates the support they need to overcome any obstacle.

Hi, January! First, talk about your time at Red Cloud.

I came to Red Cloud for high school, because I knew it would provide better opportunities if I wanted to go to a bigger university. What I really valued was the amount of time that teachers and staff spent working with students. I got to know a handful of volunteers during my time at Red Cloud who I am still connected with—and who have supported me and checked in on me through the years.

I also got an incredible amount of support from Nakina Mills [who held this position before being elected as a tribal council member]. As a first to attend college in my family, I had questions that my peers at Stanford already had the answers to—and Nakina was always there to help. To have someone where to fill that gap was an incredible resource.

How did Red Cloud prepare you for college?

I felt like I had such a good foundation when I left, even walking into such a giant university. The classes at Red Cloud challenged me and helped me get up to speed to take on my coursework at Stanford. But it also helped me develop personal and social skills. There were so many opportunities provided to students outside the classroom—like college visits. Those really got me out of my shell and thinking about bigger things. Before I came to Red Cloud, I’d never heard of the Ivy League or schools like Stanford. Going to school here helped me expand my awareness of so much that’s out there in the world.

How did you choose Stanford?

I have so much empathy for the seniors I’m working with now, because during my own senior year, there was so much stress. I remember when I was waiting to hear back from Stanford. At the time, I had just learned that I didn’t get the Gates Millennium Scholarship, and although I did get accepted by a number of other universities, the rejection letters I was receiving from some schools just held more weight, and I was feeling so down.

When I finally got my acceptance email from Stanford, I was at Pizza Hut, because I didn’t have wifi at home. And when I read the email quickly, for some reason I understood it as a rejection letter, because I was so used to rejection at that point. I had to reread it and then I realized I had actually got in. I was so in shock, and I thought maybe it was a mistake. I didn’t tell my teachers for a day—I think I still needed time to process.

After that, though, everything fell into place. I hadn’t visited Stanford before I went, but thankfully, it does a really good job in terms of communicating with prospective students. It was the only university that called me, and the only one that gave me the chance to talk to a number of different faculty members and students. That gave me some comfort, and it just felt like a good choice and a great school. So I accepted, Nakina helped me find the funds for a one-way ticket to California, and I took off!

How was the transition to college life?

A week before Stanford starts, there’s an immersion program designed specifically for Native students, and that was an incredible help. I had the chance to become friends with other Native students, and to understand the university and the expectations facing you before classes even begin.

Still, it was a huge shift for me. Growing up on the reservation, you don’t realize how much wealth there is in the world. Then, at Stanford, you surrounded by so much enormous wealth. Some of my classmates already had not only one, but two homes, and it can be difficult to relate. Initially I wondered what I had got myself into. But I didn’t have enough money to come home, so I thought…I might as well make this work!

I think what helped was having that connection to the Native community at Stanford. I dream of someday becoming a lawyer, and my advisor—who is also a Native woman from a small community—is an amazing attorney who helped me set goals and make plans. And I was challenged to get to know other people from different backgrounds and races and experiences, which in the end was wonderful.

What was the greatest challenge that faced you?

A few months into senior year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer—and a few months after that, she passed away. My mom was raising my niece—she’s in the eighth grade now—and she grew up like my little sister and I didn't trust anyone else to raise her. So I made the decision to legally adopt her.

With all that, I knew I still wanted to finish my degree—and I still absolutely plan to do great things. So after taking a brief break from school, I packed us up and went back to Stanford. I was able to work around her school schedule, and had a lot of great friends who helped me along the way, with babysitting and things like that, and we made it work. I finished out my senior year and graduated.

How does it feel to be home now, after all you’ve been through and accomplished?

While I finished at Stanford, I knew I had a lot of healing to do. I wanted to get my niece surrounded by her extended family. I knew coming back home to something familiar would help heal me.

And it really has. Coming home and working directly with Red Cloud students—they bring a lot of inspiration, not just to me but to so many. It’s so beautiful, how each individual student makes so much impact on this community that we live in, and how much goodness that they are going to bring in the future. It’s motivation not only for me but for everybody.

Talk about your new role on campus.

Getting to know every single high school student is such a gift. I’m here to support them in whatever way they need—if they have a question about financial aid, or if they don’t know how to fit everything into their schedule. Some of those things seem simple, for student whose families are already fluent in college life. But for our students, many of whom are first-generation, low-income college students, a lot of their families don’t know how to answer those questions. So I’m here to help them navigate through this process and fill in the gaps—just like Nakina helped me.

And it’s so exciting when I get to help them confirm that they are going to college. I think I get more excited than they do. I try to make a big deal of it, because it is…it’s such a big moment for them!

You’re also doing new things to support our alumni who are already in college.

Being away from home and away from your community on the reservation is really hard. I can relate to it on a personal level. Whenever you lose someone, a friend or family member, when you’re away at college, you just want to come home and be with family. I try to help our alumni find ways to cope while they are at university—whether it’s through a church they can go to, or finding ways to stay more connected to family at home. I check in with those who need it the most, either socially or academically, and to navigate through the challenges.

When our students go off to their universities, they often have a sense that they are failing to meet their duty to help their family here on the reservation. I try to help them address those issues—and instill in them that this is one time to think of their own futures. And to help them remember that what they are doing in college now is going to help prepare them for the long-run, to better support their family in the future. It’s worth fighting through, even though it’s hard right now.

What advice to you give most often?

What I really try to stress, first and foremost, is remembering the reason why they are struggling through the challenging moments. If they are failing a class, or something happened at home, I try to encourage them to remember why they are there, what the bigger picture is in their life. It doesn’t matter what their major is, or what their GPA is at, as long as they remember why they are doing what they are doing, they’re going to get through it, and prove to themselves that they can accomplish anything they want to.




Photos ©Paulina Fast Wolf 


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