Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Going Away

It’s that time again. A new wave of baby birds will spread their wings and fly away to college. I bet parents and families are buying up bed sheets (half will be too small on move-in day), small refrigerators, desk junk, $30 microwaves, school supplies and permits.
My experience as a college student was a blur. It went by so fast. There are things I’m glad I did and things I wish I knew when I left home.
I started my college career in Las Vegas, baby. During the summer before I became a freshman, my family and I took a drive to New Mexico Highlands University. As we drove farther and farther away from the reservation a hot lump became ever bigger in my throat as I watched my desert disappear and a forest take over the scenery. This was one of the hardest things I had to do in my life; leave my family and everything I have ever known.
We were met with promises of a great education and a friendly atmosphere. There were smiles and free purple things for everyone in my family. That hot lump in my throat was still there.
In the days before I left home everything around me became sentimental. I teared up all the time and even broke down at the thoughts of leaving my family and my home. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so there were no older siblings to tell me that it’s going to be OK; no older siblings to tell me how to navigate a white man’s city or a college campus.
When my parents dropped me off at the all-girls dorm we all cried and hugged for a long time when it was time for my family to leave me here; 200 miles from home; four hours from my house. I felt devastated and so alone and vulnerable in that moment. But everyone’s comforting words made me feel better. About an hour after they left I felt energized and happier. I wanted to explore, I wanted to clean my room and set everything up for my classes in the next few days.
When I think of Highlands I think about my friend Vivian. She was vital to my survival there. She was the only person I knew because we graduated from Crownpoint High School together (we were probably the shyest two girls in that class; never got much attention, didn’t have many friends, but we’re probably the only two women who have graduated from a four-year college in that whole graduating high school class — or at least as many as I can count from my small circle of Facebook friends... It’s true what they say about nerds, wink-wink.) Vivian and I did everything together during the two years I was there. She’s my best friend still.
I took my studies seriously. That’s one thing I’m glad I did. I never got a C and even made it a mission to earn an A+ in one history class. At that time my major was English. Until I found journalism.
In the frustrating search for scholarships I stumbled upon a scholarship from the American Indian Journalism Institute in South Dakota. I applied and was surprised that they wanted me there that summer of 2007. That opened a new door for me.
Applying for numerous scholarships is also another thing I’m glad I did. There are so many scholarships for Native American students I believe there is no reason why any Native student should quit because of money. No reason. Through Native American student scholarships alone, I have had my whole college experience paid for — and then some.
After that first summer at AIJI, I decided to switch my major to journalism and then transfer to a school that offered it. I came to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces; 300 miles away from home; five hours from my house. I felt sad for leaving Vivian and the cool people I met at NMHU, but I wanted to be a journalist.
I joined my sister, who was already a sophomore and I, a junior, and became her roommate. It was a good pairing. My parents were so relieved that we were together to take care of each other.
Here I kept up with my studies and attended AIJI for two more summers. By now I was used to leaving home.
Another thing I was glad I did was not go home all the time. There are some Native students that go home every weekend, literally. They used up all their money for gas, they missed assignments and lowered their grades, they missed their families too much, they dropped out. Sometimes I went home about every two months or so and for breaks. Sometimes I don’t understand why they go home all the time, there’s nothing there (but that tone has its underside. I never want to go home now and when I do go home, it’s like a reverse culture shock that makes me feel sort of terrible; distant from my own people and foreign in my native place.)
 I experienced so many things and met so many different people during my college years. With AIJI I got to travel around and experience different cities and their people. I lived in Montana and North Dakota for two months and learned about the people there and wrote stories about them. This “white man’s” world became smaller, less daunting and familiar.
As a young Native journalist, I think I had the upper hand in college. For assignments and homework I had to research the place I was in and talk to the people. I had to go out into the community and see things for myself. I think this is the No. 1 thing I’m glad I did as a college student. I explored and experienced the community wherever I was at. I met people of all colors and learned about them along the way. I attended community events in and outside the university and I learned to appreciate every community.
But everywhere I was, I stayed close and in touch with the Native student community. I’m glad they were always there to be my first friends. They provided a sense of home and camaraderie. But the sobering truth is, many of them dropped out. The sobering truth is Native American students have a very low retention rate. As a Native student there are many more obstacles to face.
There is the initial shock of leaving home and the following culture shock of living in a different and foreign community. Native families are very close knit. All our family members live very close to us as opposed to other people where they have cousins and uncles who live all over the country. It’s scary and there were times when I thought I couldn’t do it and I wanted to come home. But I kept in there, kept my mind on my school work and I graduated.
Many Native parents haven’t been to college and I think they sometimes don’t see the importance of it. They don’t prepare for all of it and they always tell their children to come home. I can understand if they go home for traditional things and holidays, but every weekend is ridiculous.
To the parents: Let them be homesick, let them be sad, they’ll get over it, but don’t tell them to come home every chance they get. Ask them about their grades all the time and keep telling them that they’re doing a good job, you’re proud of them and to keep it up. Let them do something they love or let them find it. Find out ways to manage money. Help them and go the extra mile when they have questions about how to rent an apartment, how to cancel credit cards, how to file taxes or how to fill out lengthy applications. (Well, maybe you can tell I’m clueless when it comes to official documents and applications, but we don’t leave the house knowing everything — thank God for cell phones.) I promise this will all pay off when you get a college graduation invitation in the mail — even though you helped your son or daughter pick out said invitations, but still wanted to experience the thrill of it coming through the mail.
My parents did all those things for my sister and I and I’m thankful for that. They were there when ever we called and said “Mom, what’s my social security number? Dad, how do you change the windshield wiper? Mom, which box has my CIB?” and “dad, there’s cockroaches!”
To the students: Get to know the community you're in; explore it and attend their community events. Taste different flavors, they're lovely. Fall in love with learning. Don't take your classes for granted, you are there to learn and someone is paying for you to learn. Take advantage of every program and privilege you can as a Native American student, there are a lot out there, there is no reason you should go back home empty handed. And do not take a "break" from college. Chances are, you'll never come back. If your college has it, take Native American studies classes. Learn about your history because you most likely never learned it in high school.

A few things I wished I learned when I was in college:
• “Thrift stores are awesome.”
• Taking advantage of grocery sales and coupons.
• “Recycling is awesome.”
• Fun can turn into too much fun really quick.
• Labels and brands are not "all that."
• Just in case, save money for when you graduate. You might be unemployed for a while.


  1. Yes it's one of the most difficult things to do, letting your child leave home. But it's the most rewarding when she walks to receive her college diploma! So proud of you!

  2. I'm in your blog! Wow, I was interested in reading this one because it's a great piece on coming from high school to college. It was a culture shock to come to Vegas. But I think having you there those first couple of years really helped me through as well. I'm glad I did come back after my "break" and finished it. Who knew that I would come back for Grad School and get immersed in other clubs like the Picayune, English Honor society, and become a Writing Center tutor. Not me. I'm happy you achieved what you set out for and that you continue doing your awesome blogs and giving helpful hints for other potential Native American students.