Let's Talk Alumni Success with January Tobacco

January Tobacco, the Director of Graduate and Alumni Success, knows firsthand the challenges of transitioning from high school to college. January is a Red Cloud alum that graduated from Stanford University and has returned to Red Cloud to assist other Red Cloud alums in their college journey. Established over ten years ago, the Office of Graduate and Alumni Success provides support for Red Cloud students prepping for college and assists Red Cloud alumni that are currently navigating college life.

January offers graduate support to alumni by providing college-attending students with the necessary tools and knowledge to successfully complete their post-secondary education or explore alternative paths by:

Providing social/emotional transition support
Conducting campus visits for academic, social and financial check-ins
Counsel in college course selection and degree planning
Support financial aid renewal, financial aid appeal process and scholarship application
And so much more…

We sat down with January to talk more about the program, discuss pandemic highs and lows, asked her to share some helpful advice for students and parents, and her ideas about the future for the office. Here’s what she had to say!

Q&A with Red Cloud’s Director of Graduate and Alumni Success

Tell us more about the care packages!

I try to send out care packages once a semester to any RCHS alumni taking classes or in the military. Each semester is different, but I try to send lots of snacks that they can also share with their friends, a short newsletter on anything new from home or the high school, and I include either sage, cedar, or sweet grass. I try my best to also write each student a small encouragement note. It's a small boost of encouragement to finish out the semester.

Are you back to doing campus visits?

Yes. I already visited Black Hills State University to visit with alums and help get them settled in.

On visits I try to connect with (support staff) on campus, like the native center staff. At South Dakota State University, I met with the new center staff, their president…to network and make sure that they know we appreciate the support they give our Red Cloud alumni. I also invite them to come visit Red Cloud, see our campus, and see our (prospective) students. I try to create a network so if a student I know is in need and I'm not able to reach them, I can connect to that staff person as support.

In my visits, alumni can expect me to visit them individually, stay on campus, answer general questions about scholarships, assist with connecting them to the college’s support staff or centers, basically anything like that. And then I take them out to dinner and if they need something like toiletries, I'll take them to like Walmart or Target and can buy them what they need.

What do you see college students needing the most?

In terms of our (Red Cloud) alumni, they need a place to connect, and our alumni do well in colleges that have centers that cater to Native students. For instance, within our state, schools Black Hills State University, University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University all offer Native Student Centers. These centers provide tutoring and have things like sage, so students can come and pick it up. Some centers are one-stop shop and students can go to with tons of questions and get them all answered, because they have an academic coach, financial liaisons - they have everything there.

Basically, students need more support systems and financial assistance. A lot of our students need startup funds for dorm stuff or laptops. They leave Red Cloud with a Chromebook, but as they progress through college, they may need a different laptop that allows them to different type of software.

What do you find rewarding about the graduate Success program?

Being able to see alumni mature in a way that is so unexpected. It is exciting to see them be adults now. Seeing them come into themselves, that moment, when they realized “this is what I'm doing… and I'm okay.” During my college visits this past last week, I met with one student who was struggling and had a hard time with COVID. And now, she has moved past that difficult time and she's just so confident in herself and she's okay. I just want that for all the students.

Because of COVID, has there been any changes to the Graduate and Alumni Success program?

Yes, for sure. Last year, due to COVID, a lot of schools closed their dorms which meant a lot of students lost their housing. A lot of students who didn't have good financial or family support, had to scramble and find apartments or some kind of temporary housing. Helping students rebuild relationships with family members so they could stay there for a short amount of time, was a big thing. Also, many students’ mental health suffered being at home and being online. A lot of students decided just to take a gap year, because online learning wasn't their learning style. Thankfully, most of them went back this Fall. Some of them are planning to go back in the Spring. I think for the most part, a lot of campuses have realized a lot of students are going to need a fifth year and possibly a six year to complete college.

Aside from the pandemic, are there any challenges that the program faces?

Right now, there's just me and so I feel like a lot of times alumni outreach is based on emergencies. Hopefully by next semester we will have another person in the office and will be able to outreach more proactively to students…doing more preventative work, helping students anticipate and plan for emergencies.

Another challenge is being able to connect and establish more school-to-school partnerships. For example, we have an establishment partnership at Bridgewater University, located on the East Coast. It is a great partnership because we work together to find more opportunities for Red Cloud students that go there. I really want all our university partners to realize the value of our students, of Native students in general, and how we are willing to work in partnership to get more resources for students on campuses.

What advice would you give a student preparing for attending college?

There are different ways of approaching this:

1. Focusing on your own studies and do well in classes. Habits created in high school follow you to college, create good study and homework habits.
2. Take advantage of those opportunities that build up yourself; like summer programs, after school activities, and being involved in your own community.
3. Start thinking about different career paths. You can choose whatever university but take a step back and think about what career you want to pursue. There's a whole spectrum of everything out there, you just need to explore and have an open mindset.
4. Visit a college or university.
5. Surround yourself with people that encourage you and encourage your friends. There are no limits to what we can dream, and we can do whatever we want to. We just got to believe it about ourselves and about each other.

Do you have any advice for parents about how they can prepare their high school student for college?

Yeah, encourage them to think outside the box and make a habit of completing assignments. This time in high school sets them up for the rest of their life. Tell them to take advantage of any opportunity they want to and to not sell themselves short. Make sure they prepare for their senior year, while remaining compassionate. Seniors are full-time students taking their AP courses, their senior year level courses, applying for scholarships, applying for colleges, and reconciling the end of their high school time. They're going through a lot. Finally, know that no matter what university they go to, they're going to be successful as long as the student is confident in what they want to do - It doesn't matter the institution.

What dreams do you have for the Graduate and Alumni Success in the future?

I would like to be able to connect with more schools on the reservation and help them develop an alumni support and success program like ours. Right now, we service only Red Cloud alums, and it would be great to share resources and help other schools guide their alumni as well.

Internally, I would like to offer more opportunities for students and dismantling the idea of “there's only one true path to college and you have to do it this one way” and making students realize that they're on their own individual pathway and giving them that confidence.

Also begin to assist alumni beyond college and celebrate what they accomplish more. I would like to build out more career development opportunities, and assist alumni wanting to continue to graduate school, med school, or law school. I want to be able to provide more summer internships and different opportunities for alumni. In the future I would like to have more homecoming alumni events where they can connect, gather, and celebrate life and their achievements. I want to begin to honor our alumni that finish too. We send a lot of kids out in the world; they go to these amazing universities, and they graduate – I feel like we need to have honorings and ‘welcome homes’ for them. Let them know they did good and we at Red Cloud see that!


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