New Scholarship Allows Graduates to "Complete the Circle" & Give Back to Their Communities

posted on June 10, 2013

Poverty is an everyday reality on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The per capita income in Shannon County, where the reservation sits, is only $7,887. Infrastructure is crumbling or nonexistent, and rates of joblessness soar over national averages.  The vast majority of children on the reservation—nearly 8 out of 10—grow up in poverty or in low-income families, making college seem far out of reach.

But at Red Cloud, a group of new graduates are refusing to accept those statistics as destiny. As recipients of a new scholarship for students that want to support their community after completing college, they each have a unique vision for how they will use their careers to bring needed change to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

To fight the insidious diseases that plague families on Pine Ridge, from diabetes to alcoholism, Santa Mickie Hudspeth will pursue a nursing degree at Augustana College.

Recognizing the severe lack of access to fresh and healthy food on Pine Ridge, Tatiana Stands will study culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University—in preparation for opening a restaurant on the reservation serving global cuisine inspired by Lakota heritage.

After witnessing the suffering of animals on Pine Ridge, Justina Bagola decided to study veterinary medicine at Black Hills State University. She plans to open the reservation’s very first veterinary practice.

And after experiencing the pain of losing a dear friend to suicide, Elyssa Sierra Concha decided to study education at the University of New Mexico.  Her goal is to become a teacher—and to provide crucial support to students facing depression and other serious challenges.

Eight members of Red Cloud’s graduating class of 2013 received the new “Completing the Circle” Scholarship, aimed at supporting students who wish to give back to their community and improve conditions for the Lakota people after they complete college. Teachers and administrators believe the scholarship—created by a $100,000 gift from an anonymous donor—will allow Red Cloud graduates to play a major role in creating desperately needed opportunity on Pine Ridge.

“Although they’ve only just graduated from high school, the students receiving this scholarship have all experienced first-hand the impact of extreme poverty on Pine Ridge—whether through losing a friend to suicide, or a family member to the diabetes epidemic, or by witnessing the severe lack of access to basic resources like health care,” said Robin Johnson, Red Cloud High School’s principal.

“Despite the incredible challenges many of them have faced in their young lives, these students are all determined to give back and create change here on the reservation,” she continued. “And we could not be more proud.”

“Completing the Circle” scholars will receive financial support for their college tuition, in awards that range from $1000 to $25,000. They plan to attend schools across South Dakota—from Black Hills State to South Dakota State University to Augustana.  In addition, three will leave the state pursue their degrees at Johnson & Wales in Colorado, Dartmouth in New Hampshire, and the University of New Mexico. 

Through the scholarship, they will also receive continued support from their mentors at Red Cloud during their college years and until they obtain their degrees. According to Red Cloud’s faculty, effective mentoring is a critical resource for Native students who are transitioning to college and leaving the reservation, sometimes for the first time.

“With limited exposure to the depth of career opportunities possible to them, and families who have typically never navigated the university experience before, our students—and many Native students—face unique hurdles as they leave the reservation to attend college,” said Nakina Mills, Red Cloud’s director of student advancement and alumni support and a graduate of the school who left the reservation to attend Creighton University.

“But we’ve seen our students thrive when they can still tap into the close-knit support they had here at Red Cloud—it gives them the perseverance they need to prepare for their futures, both on and off the reservation,” Mills explained.

After celebrating their graduation from Red Cloud last month, the eight scholarship recipients are now preparing to take their next step toward “completing the circle” by heading off to college.  But Principal Robin Johnson knows they will be back to start creating a very different reality on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“There is no doubt in my mind that these students will achieve their dreams—and remain committed to making their community a better place,” said Johnson. “The future of Pine Ridge will be brighter because of them.”


Photos: All Rights Reserved ©Red Cloud Indian School / Christopher Ives