As a member of the Oglala Sioux Nation and a graduate student in civil engineering, Sydney James understands the barriers Native Americans may face in furthering their education. On October 18, she served on a panel, “Native People and Your Success,” at the Mid-America Transportation Center’s 2019 Scholars Program and encouraged the 14 Native scholars attending to continue their education.
“This was the last day of the program, and the questions were kind of like, ‘You have seen us three days now. From where you’re sitting, do you think we can do this?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely, I think you can do it. There is no reason for you not to do it,’” James said.
A first-year NRT student, James earned her undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Nebraska after transferring from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and is now earning her master’s degree at Nebraska through MATC.
In her work with the MATC Scholars Program, she supports Native students interested in transitioning from two-year colleges like Nebraska Indian Community College and Little Priest Tribal College to Nebraska or other four-year institutions.
“The focus of the program is to bring the students in that are already in a tribal college,” James said. “Kind of the big message is, ‘You can do this. There is no reason why you can’t do this.’ So, we try to bring in other Native people that have also done it, so it’s like, ‘Look, here is someone that has been in your shoes, been in the exact same place, and they did it, and this is how they did it, and this is how you can also do it.’”
Native students are often nontraditional students, returning to school at an older age and, sometimes, with children, James said. They may doubt they can afford further education or lack confidence that they can compete scholastically. James said she can relate to such feelings because she experienced them herself.
“There were a lot of times, especially going to School of Mines, I felt like, ‘I don’t belong here. Everyone else is smarter than me.’ Kind of that imposter syndrome,” she said.
Such feelings made her reluctant to reach out in group work, she said.
“I thought that if I reached out for help, everyone would figure out that I didn’t belong there,” she said. “That I wasn’t as smart as they were. That I wasn’t as good. All of that stuff.”
What helped her was her advisor, who met with her monthly and would end every meeting by saying, “Sydney, I’m really proud of you.”
“Honestly, it sounds silly, but that is what got me through sometimes when I was having those days when I was really doubting myself,” James said. “Just to know that someone was really rooting for me. And that’s what I told these guys: ‘You’ve got this. You’ve got this MATC group. We’re not just going to leave you high and dry. If you come to school, we’ll help you out. We’ll offer you that support you need so you can get through.’”
Among the many other Native leaders at the program were Chris Cornelius, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Nebraska; Regina Idoate, assistant professor of Health Promotion in the College of Public Health at University of Nebraska-Omaha; Gabe Bruguier, education and outreach coordinator at the Mid-America Transportation Center; Chris Howell, the tribal liaison for the governor of Kansas; Colette Yellow Robe, counselor for TRIO Programs; Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs; and Tammy Eagle Bull, Encompass Architects owner.
James and other leaders relayed the steps they took to reach success. They discussed scholarships and the smart use of student loans and helped participants fill out the application for the Chief Standing Bear Scholarship. They gave study tips and told how to take notes and seek help. Probably most important, James said, they let the scholars know they can fit in and revealed how they themselves did so.
James said she found community by reaching out to the University of Nebraska Inter-Tribal Exchange on campus, working at the “Roads, Rails, and Race Cars” afterschool program for tribal schools, helping at the university’s summer academy for Native high school students and working to establish an American Indian Science and Engineering Society chapter on campus.
“We were just kind of proving like, ‘We have groups like UNITE. We have groups that are people like you, so you don’t have to feel like an outsider. You can feel like you belong, because you do,’” she said.
Program leaders did not skirt the challenges students may face at home either. James said one leader told how she went off to college to help her people on the reservation but, when she came back, other Natives called her an “apple” (red on the outside but white on the inside) and acted like a bucket of crabs.
“What do a bucket of crabs do?” James asked. “One tries to get out, and the rest pull it back in.”
She said the program leaders tried to prepare the scholars for such reactions with the forewarning, “We’re not going to lie to you. It’s tough. You have a lot to overcome, but it’s worth it and that not-warm reception comes from a place of jealousy.”
James encouraged the scholars to stay the course and not allow the negativity of others to deter them.
“You made it this far,” she said she told them. “Just keep going because then, later, the tune will change when you come back and you help your people.”
— Ronica Stromberg, National Research Traineeship Program Coordinator