ALUM | Kyla Woodard, 2010

Grad Student and Future Social Worker

 After spending the first part of her life in California, Kyla Woodard returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation and found her cultural community and spiritual home. Through her education at Red Cloud, she discovered her passion for serving others and her desire to create positive change for Indigenous people. That experience set her on her current path toward a career in social work. Kyla completed her undergraduate degree at Oglala Lakota College—and earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Master’s in Social Work program at Washington University in St. Louis. Today, as a first generation graduate student, she is planning to focus her studies and her career on improving the health and well-being of Native children on Pine Ridge and beyond.  We sat down with Kyla to talk about the foundation Red Cloud created for her—and her dreams for the future.

Thank you for sitting down with us, Kyla! You didn’t spend your entire childhood here in Pine Ridge—how did you make your way to Red Cloud? 

Although I was born in Rapid City, South Dakota, my mom and I moved to Sacramento for ten years, and so I didn’t come back to South Dakota until I was 12. A majority of my father’s family lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation and after I spent a summer with my grandmother on the reservation, reconnecting with family members, friends, and my culture, I just never wanted to move back to the city. I was able to attend Our Lady of Lourdes for my eighth grade year and I just loved the small, private school environment. I grew up in a huge public school system so it was a major change to have that one-on-one time with teachers.

With my mom’s blessing I decided to stay on the reservation and attend high school at Red Cloud. And I always say, everywhere I go, that was the best decision of my life. Red Cloud has really high academic standards and that was so important to me. I know how fortunate I am to have attended the best school on the reservation—to have been able to obtain an excellent education and opportunities offered to me. 

Would it be fair to say that your time at Red Cloud had an impact on you, then? 

Today I am studying in the top graduate social work program in the nation—and I can connect that directly back to my education at Red Cloud. At the time I didn’t realize it, but while at Red Cloud I took a Lakota Studies class with Roger White Eyes ‘79 that sparked my initial interest in social work. In that class he taught us about Native American history, about the effects of colonization and assimilation on our people, and about the resurgence of Indigenous rights.

Aside from the knowledge I gained from my family, in public school I never had a chance to learn my own history and the history of other Native peoples—and that’s something that is really incorporated and emphasized at Red Cloud. I was able to get a clearer view of what we need on the reservation and the critical importance of ensuring that the federal government honors our sovereignty and treaty rights. I think that class with Roger really formed my whole platform for wanting to advocate for Indigenous people, using social work and related policies as tools to support social justice. 

It sounds like you made the right decision to study social work at Oglala Lakota College, here on Pine Ridge—one of only two tribal colleges to have an accredited social work program.

The program Oglala Lakota College (OLC) was equally as great as Red Cloud. And my time at Red Cloud, which taught me discipline and the importance of taking your education seriously, really prepared me for it. The foundation Red Cloud provided also helped me to realize that I wanted to be at an institution that recognized Native American culture beliefs, and values, and incorporated them into its curriculum.

OLC’s vision statement is to rebuild the Lakota nation through education. Its mission is to educate students for professional and vocational employment opportunities in Lakota country, graduating well-rounded students grounded in wolakolkiciyapi—learning Lakota ways of life in the community—by teaching Lakota culture and language as part of preparing students to participate in a multicultural world. I felt that mission was particularly present in the social work program. Like at Red Cloud, at OLC I had smaller classrooms and a deeper connection with teachers, and a community environment in which I was surrounded by many other Native American students committed to improving conditions for our people.

Being in that environment, and having that kind of support, is what helped me to succeed. It’s incredibly challenging for Native students to go off to big universities where they can’t identify themselves in the western education system. OLC was a perfect place for me because I had a strong support system. And that’s why I think it’s so important that Red Cloud—through the work Nakina Mills ‘98 is doing there—is helping graduates find colleges where they’ll have that  kind of support system.

So tell us about this new part of your journey and how it fits into your plans going forward!

Pursuing a graduate degree was always in my plans. When I was at Red Cloud, during my freshmen orientation, our teachers really instilled in us the importance of higher education and that our time at Red Cloud would prepare us for college and beyond. So when I went to OLC I was already a step ahead in thinking about graduate school. I started researching programs when I was a sophomore; I knew what I wanted to do and started creating a plan to get there.

I worked as a research assistant in behavioral health as an undergraduate and that sparked my interest in pursuing direct practice in clinical social work. In looking for graduate schools I knew I wanted a Master’s in Social Work program, but I wanted to make sure that it was a program that focused on cultural competency and understanding diversity. The Brown School of Social Work  here at Washington University is everything I was looking for.

Something truly unique that influenced my choice to attend Washington University is their recognition of American Indians through the Buder Center for American Indian Studies. The Buder Center works to support Native social work students and develops curriculum to prepare its students to create positive change across Indian Country. Many research scholars agree that offering a cultural curriculum significantly enhances the success of Native students because it reduces cultural isolation and increases retention. It was so important to me to remain connected to my culture throughout my education—to be able to use my time here to identify the needs of my community and how I can address those needs through social work.

Through Washington University and the Buder Center here, I am now pursuing a Master’s in Social Work, but with an individualized concentration in mental health and American Indian Studies. My vision is to help increase the number of minority health care providers, with the purpose of reducing health disparities and improving behavioral health outcomes for racially and ethnically diverse populations—particularly among indigenous peoples in this country.

Your graduation in December of 2017 seems already on the horizon. What comes next?

My purpose for adding this particular individualized concentration is being able to work with American Indians and indigenous peoples—and I’m very sure that at some point I’m going to go back to Pine Ridge and be able to give back. My short term goal is to pursue a career working with children and adolescents, counseling students with learning disabilities and offering them help with things like anger management and grief counseling.

But I’m also interested in working beyond direct practice. I have a strong interest in policy and program development and in social justice that I wish to apply to my work. Earning my MSW is helping me discover additional ways—beyond direct practice—that I can influence positive change. I do want to get into advocacy and lobbying. And I come from a strong family of advocates: my grandmother is an educator who has dedicated most of her life to addressing issues that have to do with environmental justice and protecting our sacred lands, and easing tensions between law enforcement and Native communities; and my mother has worked to support access to quality health care, particularly for Native people. I have a strong natural sense of wanting to help; I want to use my passion and training to create systematic and institutional change.  

In one of my first classes with the Buder scholars, we talked about what has made a big impact in our lives and I said that my career choice was heavily influenced by my experience at Red Cloud. I credit a lot of my success to Red Cloud because my education there laid a foundation I’m still using today. I’m now a first generation master’s student, studying at the top social work program in the nation. So I have the opportunity to use my career and my life to serve indigenous people, strengthen communities, and promote the growth and education of children. In my opinion, Red Cloud is doing that for our students on the reservation. 

What advice might you give to those current students at Red Cloud who are just now exploring what they might want to accomplish with their own careers?

In any field you need to have a broad range of skills and competencies—and taking advantage of opportunities inside and outside of school will better equip them for succeed in academia and in their professional work. Taking on new roles within the high school—like student council—is a great way to experience leadership. And outside Red Cloud, in the Pine Ridge community, there are so many opportunities to volunteer and serve. I would say to seek out those opportunities and new learning experiences. I would also say to stay focused, learn self-discipline, and really try to grasp all the knowledge that is being taught to you in the classroom. That will lead to having more confidence in yourself, in your capabilities, and in knowing what you want to do. After high school you can take any path you want. Just know that it will require hard work, and having a voice in your head that tells you, “You can and will succeed.”


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Photo: © Red Cloud Indian School
last updated: October 13, 2016