Lucy Barrett: From grandma to graduate to professor

Volume 22, No. 4 - Summer 2011
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TEACHING AND LAUGHING. From left, Lucy Barrett, Red Lake Nation College instructor, with students Tessy Johnson, Allysha Johnson, and Chelsey May. Photo by Dan King

Most people look forward to a restful retirement, planning to relax, travel, or spend time pursuing their favorite hobby. Lucy Barrett (Red Lake Nation Band of Chippewa) is no ordinary person. In 2005, after retiring from her job at age 66, she attended college for the first time in her life—and started her post-retirement, educational career at Red Lake Nation College (Red Lake, MN).

Six years later, Barrett has earned three degrees and is now teaching Indian Studies courses. “None of this would have happened for me if Red Lake Nation College was not here,” she says. “Red Lake College is good for the tribe because everyone can go to college, and it’s close, right here on the rez. And, you’re going to school with your own people. That makes it easier. Once I was here a while, I realized I could go to college just like anyone else and maybe even go to a four-year college.”

The bitter cold winds flow freely across the dark green pine trees in the “Icebox of America”—the Little Rock area of the Red Lake Indian Reservation where Barrett was raised. Red Lake is located in northern Minnesota about 90 miles south of the Canadian border, and is one of the largest Indian reservations in America with almost one million acres of land, forests, and lakes. Barrett was raised in these sprawling lands in a small, closeknit family of three children with her mother and father.

She worked, eventually married, and then raised four children of her own with her husband of 45 years, Richard Barrett. When she retired from her position at the Red Lake Hospital after a long, successful career in the medical records field, she was the matriarch of nine grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and a large extended family— and intended to take “just one class” at the tribal college.

“I went to Red Lake College to sign up for one class, and I came home with three,” Barrett says with an easy laugh. “I didn’t really plan on being a full-time student; I just wanted to take one computer class so I could learn all the buttons.” However, when Barrett learned about the existence of an Indian Studies program, she became excited.

While at Red Lake Nation College, she inspired the entire community by being the “grandma student” who put in hundreds of quiet study hours. Barrett quickly became known as a serious student who worked hard on her assignments and papers, and after two years, she earned a 3.73 grade point average.

One day, a UPS driver who visited the tribal college on a daily basis commented on Barrett’s presence: “Hey, looks like you have perfect attendance, you’re here every single day!” Barrett quickly replied with a smile, “At my age, I need to have perfect attendance, or I’ll forget what I learn!”

At Red Lake, she was consistently on the Dean’s List for Academic Excellence. She went on to graduate as a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and earned an Associate of Arts Degree in Indian Studies. Due to her strong academic performance at Red Lake, she was also awarded a Senior Academic Scholarship to attend Bemidji State University (BSU).

There, she immediately won the hearts of her fellow students, as well as staff and faculty, and became a legend. “Lucy was a leader in her classes and one of most influential students in her classes due to her willingness to share her extensive life experiences and knowledge of tribal history and sovereignty,” says her advisor, Dr. Ben Burgess, assistant professor of American Indian studies. “When Lucy spoke in class, everybody listened.”

Throughout her time at BSU, Barrett was on the dean’s list. In 2009, she graduated with cum laude honors from BSU after only two years to earn a fouryear, Bachelor of Arts Degree in Indian Studies.

After she graduated from BSU, she earned her Tribal Eminence Credentials from Red Lake Nation Tribe as a certified expert in Indian Studies—that’s a distinguished and rare honor based on lifelong knowledge of a tribe’s culture and ways. Since then, she has been asked to join the faculty of Red Lake Nation College. “At our tribal college, she is one of the most respected and most popular instructors,” says Laurie Neadeau, director of Student Services at Red Lake Nation College.

“I went to college because I wanted to learn about computers and Indian Studies,” Barrett says. “It never seemed like I was going to college because I was just learning what I wanted to learn.” The purest purpose of getting an education is learning for the sake of learning— that’s something Barrett figured out in her first college class.


MENTORED. When Lucy Barrett’s fiveyear-old great-grandson Damon graduated from kindergarten, he shouted, “Oh, I’m just like Gramma now!”

Barrett also offers her students practical advice for success in college. “All of your answers are right there if you spend time reading and studying,” she says. “Whenever students fail in school, it is usually because they don’t spend enough time reading and studying. I try to keep it simple.”

Recently, Barrett has been observed sniffing around the Internet, and she has apparently discovered that there are schools that offer master’s and Ph.D. degrees in her chosen field, American Indian Studies. It sounds like this story isn’t over yet. We’ll keep you posted.

Dan King is a member of Red Lake Nation Band of Chippewa Indians and the president of Red Lake Nation College. He earned a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He also has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration.

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