College Readiness at Red Cloud Starts Freshman Year

posted March 30, 2017

Red Cloud senior Jacob Rosales was only in his first year of high school when, during a computer class, his teacher had students begin to research universities they might want to attend. Up until that point Jacob hadn’t thought very specifically about college—what school might fit him best and what he might study there. But now, as he prepares to graduate, he’s grateful for the teachers and counselors who helped guide him through those challenging decisions.

Today, having been accepted at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities—including Harvard and Yale—Jacob feels prepared to take on the next steps in his education, toward his dream of a career in marine biology.

“From a very early start in our high school careers, Red Cloud makes sure that we know what we’re getting ourselves into as senior year approaches,” said Jacob. “Red Cloud helps you to take a step back—to take some time away from all that stress and to just sit down and talk about where we might want to go to college, and what goes into applying. And when school work is really intense and all encompassing, it’s really helpful to take that time and reflect on the future.”

The process of preparing for college—from selecting schools and writing admissions essays to applying for scholarships and financial aid—can quickly become overwhelming. And that’s exactly why Red Cloud has created a holistic system to support students throughout the journey. Over the course of their high school careers, Red Cloud students work closely with counselors and teachers on each step in the process: they explore future career paths and what colleges might support them; they are encouraged to apply to summer programs to add experience and fieldwork; and they can even travel to university campuses to get a feel for life on a college campus.

Particularly for the many Red Cloud students who will become the first in their families to attend college, it’s a chance to explore completely new worlds and unexpected opportunities. Nakina Mills ‘98, Red Cloud’s director of student advancement and alumni support, operates at the heart of this process. In her five years at Red Cloud, Nakina has helped hundreds of students make the transition from high school to college. She does everything from helping students explore potential schools, to leading trips to college campuses, to sending daily reminders about upcoming application deadlines. For her, it’s all in service to helping students find the right path after graduation.

Nakina’s commitment to this process, says Red Cloud High School’s principal Clare Huerter, makes an enormous difference in students’ lives.

“We have a lot of support in place here at Red Cloud—and Nakina plays such an amazing and powerful role in providing that. She gets to know our students and works with them individually to help them identify the best school for them,” said Clare. “Nakina’s story really speaks to our students—she grew up here on the reservation, went to Red Cloud, and then attended Creighton University. Her mom became ill during her time at Creighton, and staying in college became one of the hardest things she ever had to do. But she made it—and she really inspires them to know they can do it, too.”

With Nakina guiding the process, Red Cloud introduces conversations about college and careers through a program called SDMyLife during students’ first year of high school. This online platform of resources and assessments helps students understand their skills and interests and how they might support future academic and professional pursuits. Through SDMyLife, students begin exploring possibilities for postsecondary education and training and tracking opportunities as they arise. Then, from freshman year on, Red Cloud teachers and counselors continue to engage students in conversations about the future. Nakina attends student retreats and speaks about the importance of goal-setting and college planning—and she is constantly encouraging students to gain important experience through internships and summer academic programs.

Finally, as they begin their final year of high school, all Red Cloud students sit down with Nakina or another counselor or teacher to discuss their post-graduation plans. Nakina says those individual conversations are critical to understanding each student’s specific needs and concerns about college.

“It’s such an important time in our students’ lives—when they are making so many decisions that will shape their future,” said Nakina. “So being able to know our students personally—to know more than just their GPAs but also about their families, and about what they love to study and what they hope to do professionally—makes an enormous difference in providing the right kind of guidance and support.”

Nakina explains that, at Red Cloud, the focus isn’t always on getting students accepted into the best college possible, but about helping them identify the school where they are most likely to succeed. She considers it her responsibility to ask students challenging questions to help make that decision: to consider whether they can afford a particular school, whether they will be too far from home, or have the kind of support system they need on their new campus. For some students, going to an Ivy League college might be the right choice, while others may thrive at a tribal college closer to home.

While those decisions can be all consuming, Nakina and others on campus are there to help students navigate the twists and turns. And that individual approach seems to be working: over the last five years, approximately 90 percent of Red Cloud graduates have gone on to pursue a further education.

“College planning is different for many of our students, simply because of who they are and where they are from,” explains Nakina. “I know from personal experience that leaving the reservation—your home, family, and culture—can be incredibly difficult. So our focus is on matching our individual students with the right college, and making sure they will have a support system in place that understands what it means to be a Native student. If we can continue to do that, there will be no limits to what our students can achieve.”

Nakina knows Jacob Rosales is one of those students with a bright and extraordinary future stretching out before him. Like most Red Cloud High School students, Jacob met Nakina in ninth grade, before he had starting thinking about college. Over the years Nakina encouraged him to apply to summer programs in science—and last summer he ended up working on cutting edge research at the National Institutes of Health. He knows that experience strengthened his college applications, and he’s thankful Nakina was there to keep pushing him forward.

“Nakina helps with so much of the process—from the tiniest things to major challenges. She’ll help you with your financial aid paperwork, remind you to get all your applications completed and submitted by their deadlines, and make sure you understand anything that you’re signing,” said Jacob. “She goes to great lengths to make sure that everybody who goes to school at Red Cloud fully understands what it takes to get into college—and then helps students through that process.”

When Nakina heard recently that Jacob had been accepted to Harvard, she sent him a note in the same way she communicates with many students and alumni—through Facebook. She told him how proud she was of him, and he told her what an important role she had played in preparing him for college and the next steps in his education. And for Nakina, that’s the best reward she could ask for.

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School


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