ALUM | David Anaya, 2008

Program Support Specialist and Comedian

The system of academic support that David Anaya experienced at Red Cloud High School has truly come full circle. Dave’s current work with low-income youth in the Twin Cities during their college application process allows him to share the gift of guidance that made such a major impact on him. And his ability to see a subject from many angles allows him to not only be an effective teacher, but also an incisive comedian. Dave is on his way to breaking new ground in the field of comedy, leaning into experiences on the Reservation and beyond to inform his creativity.

Hello, Dave, thank you for speaking with us! We are eager to hear your story, can you start out by telling us a bit about your childhood?

Of course! My parents were both in the Army and they met when they were stationed in Baltimore, MD, so that is where I was born. My mom is originally from Pine Ridge, SD, and my dad is Puerto Rican. My parents divorced when I was younger, so I went to kindergarten and first grade in North Carolina where my dad was living, but after that, I moved back to Pine Ridge with my mom and lived there until I went to college. 

Why did your mother choose to send you to Red Cloud?

My mom knew that Red Cloud was the best academically. My mom was the one who was really pushing education for me for as long as I can remember. She was the driving factor for me going to Red Cloud. She saw that Red Cloud offered not only good academics, but also college preparation with the support of counselors and teachers.

When I think back about my teachers at Red Cloud High School, I remember Ms. Ellington, “Ms. E.”, who was the junior and senior year English teacher. In senior year, her college readiness class focused on writing essays for college and for scholarships and it had the biggest impact on me. It was one of the main reasons I was able to get the Gates Millennium Scholarship. 

Wow, what an honor! Where were you headed after graduation from Red Cloud?

After graduating from Red Cloud High School in 2008, I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. My mom was really pushing me to go to college, but I also knew I wanted to get off the Rez. I felt limited there in terms of opportunities. I went to college because I knew it would help me to be prepared to have a successful career in whatever I chose, even if that was moving back to the Rez.

The biggest transition for me once I started at Marquette University was the academics. Part of that was not understanding the level of college academics, but it also involved not understanding how the system worked. I failed two classes my first semester of college and was put on academic probation. I was really only able to proceed by going to professor’s office hours and reaching out for help. I found that the biggest secret to succeeding in college is just showing up. Going to class and doing the work are the biggest parts of the battle.

While at Marquette, I majored in physics and I also earned minors in math and astronomy. I only figured out that I was interested in those subjects once I got to college. I didn’t take physics in high school and I arrived at college with the mindset of, “I’m just going to do what I need to do to get my degree so that I can graduate.” I knew I wasn’t as good at math and science, so I was focused on staying away from that, but I had to take a science class to meet a credit requirement. I took an Introduction to astronomy course and that really piqued my interest. I got to the end of my sophomore year, and we had to declare a major, and I really was unsure. So, I thought of what I enjoyed learning up to that point and that astronomy class is what stuck out.

Aside from the academics, what else did you find to be a big transition when you started college?

Making a transition socially was there from the beginning, but I don’t think I really noticed it until later on. I experienced social and personal struggles and feeling a little out of place. Marquette  University is a private school and the student population is a little more affluent, but I couldn’t have gone there without the Gates Millennium Scholarship. I remember a situation in a sociology class during my Freshman year when we were talking about Native American mascots for professional sports teams. A friend of mine, who was also from Red Cloud, and I were the only two Natives in the room. We had to sit there and listen to people’s opinions that we thought were off the mark or wrong. We offered our own opinions and found that other students disagreed with our experiences, without having that experience themselves. Stuff like that was sprinkled throughout my college career, which was a little tough to navigate at times. The professor did meet with us afterward and said, “Hey, I recognize what was going on in the class, do you guys want to talk, or do you have questions?” so the faculty was a source of support in that way.

Once you graduated from college in 2013, where were you off to next?

Once I finished college, I realized that I didn’t want to continue studying physics in graduate school because I didn’t want to become a professor or a laboratory researcher. I thought about what I wanted to do in my career and kept going back to working with high school students. During the summers of my college years, I was a mentor to high school students at an Upward Bound program at the University of South Dakota. I also thought back to my own personal experiences going through the application process, with the help of Ms. E. at Red Cloud, and that is part of what drove me. 

I thought I’d want to go into teaching high school physics, so I looked into AmeriCorps positions. I knew that would be a good way to get my foot in the door of that field. I found an organization called College Possible in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN), that works with low-income youth during their junior and senior years. I moved to Minneapolis, MN that summer and joined the organization. I worked with a group of 40 students with ACT preparation in their junior year and college application guidance in their senior year. I looked over their essays and I wrote 40 recommendation letters, so it was a pretty intense two-year experience!

It’s amazing how the support you received in your senior year at Red Cloud has come full circle. Once the AmeriCorps two-year commitment was complete, what did you do next?

I began looking for other non-profit organizations in the Twin Cities and found my current job, Program Coordinator at Genesys Works. We place high-school seniors into paid corporate internships while providing college help along the way. These are paid IT internships at big Fortune 500 companies including Target Corporation, 3M, and Xcel Energy. Most of the students are low-income, first-generation college students, so the fact that the internship is paid is a big plus for them. The students go through an application and interview process and they start in our program during the summer before their senior year. That’s why my summer is so busy, we are teaching students from 8 am to 5 pm every day. I actually just got a new position within the same company. Starting next month my new title will be Program Support Specialist, so I’ll be managing the operations and systems within the organization.

Congratulations on the new position! What part of this work do you enjoy the most?

Definitely teaching. Part of that is interacting with the students, but it is also about making the material fun and engaging. Honestly, I think that’s why I also enjoy doing comedy. I think that’s why I’m good at teaching because teaching feels like a performance at times. I feel like I’m on stage and so I turn that on a little bit. I think that’s why it’s my favorite part of my job. 

You mentioned comedy. Tell us how you became involved in the comedy scene in Minnesota!

I have a friend named Jon who founded the show that I work on, called Minnesota Tonight. We were co-workers at College Possible. He started the show in 2015, and after it had its first season, they were looking for more writers. I reached out to see if he wanted any help because I wanted to get experience with writing and performing comedy. So, I joined in August of last year and started mostly writing. Again, I had no comedy experience, so I really focused on writing and learning. Just in the last couple of months, I’ve started to move into the performance piece. We call ourselves a “Daily Show” cosplay, and we aspire to be politically focused and informative while being funny. We focus on local issues, things that are happening in Minnesota or are affecting Minnesota residents. We really try to lean into that Minnesota culture, for how weird it is. We record it in front of a live audience, once a month, then we release them online on Facebook or on YouTube.

We will definitely check out the show online! Where do you see your path in comedy going in the next five years?

I really do want to continue with comedy, so I am going to try to write and perform as much as I can, and keep getting better, and hopefully, start to break into the industry. Thinking back to my interest in comedy, I think part of my hesitation came from growing up on the Rez, where I didn’t see people go off and be famous comedians. Now that I’m trying it out, I’m finding I am pretty good at it, and I want to keep getting better. One thing I’ve thought about is moving to Chicago, IL or New York City, where there are Genesys Works programs, and also bigger comedy scenes. Maybe in 5 years I will have moved to either Chicago or New York to continue working in my current job, or still do youth work, but also try to break into that comedy scene. To start making a living off of comedy would be the ultimate life goal. 

You incorporate some commentary on Native issues into your comedy. Can you talk about how your Lakota identity has influenced you?

Cultural identity is one thing that I personally struggle with; my dad is Puerto Rican, my mom is Native American. Even though my mom is Native, she has a lighter skin tone, so growing up on the Rez I’d always get backlash from not being full blood. Growing up, it was hard to feel like I fit in there. I also felt it when I went off to college: I’m not white or affluent and I don’t know how to navigate this system, so I stick out like a sore thumb at times. I’ve always found that I struggle with finding my place in different settings because I feel like I lead multiple identities. Whenever people ask me what my background is, I say Native American because that’s where I’m from. When I think back to my experiences growing up on the Rez, what that was like, I know that has shaped me and it is a motivator. It’s something that I struggle with, thinking back on my experiences and trying to navigate an entirely different world. Now I am off the Rez and there are not a lot of people who look like me in the Twin Cities. People really don’t know what background I am. I’ve been confused for Arab and Mexican. It’s always hard to feel like I fit in in that sense.

Do you draw upon those experiences when you are writing comedy material?

Yes, I do lean into my past experiences when I am writing my comedy. One thing we try to do for Minnesota Tonight is called “punching up”. So, whenever a politician or someone else is not making the right choices or oppressing the community, we attack them with jokes. Like many other comedians, I have anxiety and depression, which causes me to spend a lot of time in my head. I was like that growing up as well, spending a lot of time to myself, either playing video games or building Legos. When I spend a lot of time in my head, I can really get down on the state of the world, focusing on negative statistics. To get around that, I think I always leaned into jokes and comedy. My anxiety helps me get a good read on an audience because I am always very aware, looking out, and noticing things. Because of that, I can see multiple angles and viewpoints on a topic and attack from different angles with jokes if I want to. That’s sort of the process that goes into my comedy.

What advice would you offer to Red Cloud High School students as they think about the next step of their lives?

I would encourage young people to reach out for help, no matter what it is for and whether it is to professors or to friends. One of the things I personally struggled with was thinking that “I’m going to be stubborn and figure all of this out on my own, and it’s not going to mean anything if I don’t do it myself.” It took me awhile to get around that mindset and get to a place where I realize that it’s okay to reach out for help.


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Photo: Courtesy Marissa Pitts
last updated: September 8, 2017