Creating Hope and Opportunity: A Conversation with Director of Student Advancement & Alumni Support Nakina Mills

posted July 06, 2016

Nakina Mills’ connection to Red Cloud runs deep. She first walked onto campus at three years old as a pre-kindergarten student—and stayed until graduating as class salutatorian in 1998. For Nakina, the Red Cloud experience meant learning the importance of education and giving back to one’s community. After earning her degree from Creighton University, she returned to the reservation and served as a case worker and advocate for children and families in the foster care system. At the same time, she maintained close ties with Red Cloud—and four years ago, she returned to campus to take on the developing position of Director of Student Advancement & Alumni Support.

Today Nakina plays a critical role in helping Red Cloud students prepare to succeed in college, both inside the classroom and out. During their time at Red Cloud, Nakina helps students hone in on their dreams for the future—and identify the colleges that can help to fulfill those dreams. She helps new graduates find support systems for when challenges arise during the transition to college. And she remains a source of encouragement, guidance, and friendship to hundreds of Red Cloud graduates studying at universities across the country.

We spoke with Nakina about her role on campus, why Red Cloud students are achieving so much, and what she hopes for the future.  

As Director of Student Advancement & Alumni Support, you play so many different roles. Tell us in your own words what your work is really all about.

I think my primary responsibility on campus is to be able to connect and build relationships with our students—and not just with high school students, but with all Red Cloud students. Whenever they see me, I want our students to know right away that I am someone who will help prepare them for their transition into college. And after being here for the last four years I can see that they recognize me that way. Even our kids in the middle and elementary schools know that’s what I do; they know they can look to me for support.

Ultimately I want to be a strong advocate for current students as well as for our graduates. It’s really crucial that we continue to support our students after they leave Red Cloud. We are opening doors to amazing schools, but we need to make sure our graduates are as prepared as possible to stay in college and finish their degrees. So I stay as connected as I can with our alumni—I’m in touch with over 150 Red Cloud graduates at all times. We check in by email or on social media and I travel as much as I can to visit them on their college campuses. I learn what is working for them and allowing them to succeed, and then share that knowledge with our current students.

What are some of the key challenges that our graduates face in transitioning to college?

I think there are really two main challenges. First there is the aspect of being away from home, which can be so difficult that first year. Having a strong support system makes all the difference, so I focus on helping our recent graduates identify the people and organizations on their college campuses that can help them when they need guidance or just comfort. It can be a tremendous help to connect our newest graduates with other Red Cloud alumni who are further along in college. They can provide great peer support and new students tend to feel better knowing there are people from home around them. Sometimes it just helps to teach our students to have a voice for themselves—that it’s perfectly okay to ask for help when they need it.

The other challenge is academics—and making sure our students are ready for college-level courses. We are making amazing progress in terms of our curriculum, but I still try to learn from our alumni about what they are struggling with in college so that we can better prepare our current students to meet those challenges in their studies.

Each summer I actually collect data on how many of our graduates have had to take remedial courses in college. We then use that information to determine what areas we need to strengthen in terms of academics here at Red Cloud. For example, a few years ago, we learned that our former students were struggling with math. We’ve been expanding our efforts in that area and it’s already making a big difference.

This year’s senior class has had some extraordinary success—they are going to attend some of the nation’s top colleges and many earned prestigious scholarships. What made the difference for them?

Since I’ve been here for four years I’ve been able to watch this class throughout their high school careers and it’s been amazing to see them reach this point. I’ve been able to develop a strong relationship and connection with all of them and I think that’s made a difference in terms of college preparation. They’ve also received incredible support from many other people on campus. Their junior English teacher actually left his job at Red Cloud after last year, but has stayed really involved with his former students and walked many of them through the complexities of college and scholarship applications.

That’s what is so great about Red Cloud—the support comes from many places and we focus on each student as an individual. For me, the next logical step in that support system is providing our students with one-on-one academic advising. We have individual counselors who provide social and emotional assistance. But I think connecting each student to an advisor who can track their academic progress over time would be a game-changer.

Recently you’ve been offering your counseling and support to students who attend other schools on the reservation. Could you tell us about how that work started—and why it’s important to you?

Back in the fall, I learned that this was the last year of the Gates Millennium Scholarship—a scholarship which has helped so many Red Cloud students go to college without taking on student debt. It really hit me that we should be trying to help as many students as we can—not just Red Cloud students, but students from across our tribe—to take advantage of the opportunity.

I started by reaching out to our local Pine Ridge school and asked them if they needed any help supporting their students who would be applying for the Gates Scholarship. They ultimately asked me to come out and, while we didn’t have a lot of time together, I did help their students with their essays and with building all the elements of their application. And it really wasn’t all about getting them the Gates Scholarship. I wanted them to build confidence and know that they can make it to college and succeed.

In December I also went to Little Wound, another school here on the reservation. I only went once to give a presentation to students on preparing for the Gates application and to get them excited and motivated. After that presentation one of their students reached out to me directly for help, so I worked with him on parts of his application as well.

More recently I’ve been working with Pine Ridge High School students to help them get their college plans settled. It’s only a few students, but I want to share my time as much as I can, with as many students as I can. I realize how important my education was to me and I want our young people to have those same opportunities—and hopefully many more. I work at Red Cloud and that’s always my first priority. But as I have time, I’m hoping to help other students, too.

What do you hope your students take away from working with you?

I want to help our students develop a sense of adventure and opportunity. I want them to see that there is so much they can do and accomplish; that there is more to life on the reservation. I want them to realize that your life is what you make it.  

I hope they always have someone to help push them and guide them forward; to give them the courage and confidence to follow their own path. What I hope I can do in some way is help them to discover their own identity—and not just who they are now, but who they want to become in their lives going forward.

And ultimately, I want to see them create more positivity and hope for our reservation. Everyone tends to look at the negative—the alcohol abuse, unemployment, and lack of housing. But there’s so much more to this place. With our culture and our language being revitalized more and more every day, we are regaining strength. I want to help contribute to that—and I believe that means supporting the next generation of Lakota leaders. That’s exactly why I’m here—and why I do what I do.


Meet January Tobacco '13 Aspiring Law Student


Meet Featured Artist Bryan Parker


Meet Myriam Rama '15 Future Pediatrician

Photo: © Red Cloud Indian School