If you’ve never been to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s (AIHEC) student conference, then it’s time for you to go. If you’re a tribal college or university (TCU) student, you’ll find a place where wisdom, encouragement, and confidence-building intermingle. If you’re a TCU faculty, staff, or community member, you’ll witness venues for our students to display the attributes that foreshadow their promising futures. It’s no secret that TCUs are now providing Native nations access to educational opportunities unlike any generation has witnessed before, and this year marks the 33rd time TCU students and student advocates are coming together to share their best with all in attendance. Certainly the excitement of the gathering revolves around the students counting coup against one another, but the heart of this assembly is that it affirms American Indian higher education and celebrates the tribal college movement.
I first participated in an AIHEC student conference as a speech coach in the spring of 2006, when the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) hosted the conference. Although I had recently started teaching at CMN, I hadn’t given the gathering much thought until a student approached me to ask for help in preparing for the persuasive competition he hoped to compete in. Throughout the conference he worked hard, improved every round, and eventually finished with the top prize. Yet what he took away was more valuable than the tangible award. He told me he felt invigorated by the assembly of so many people—people excelling within, and working for, the tribal college movement. By the end of the week he’d made connections with new friends from across the country, and he soon began planning and recruiting for the following year’s gathering. His experience is hardly unique, and year after year I see students and faculty members who are drawn back by the same camaraderie he experienced.
Every competition is worth the cost of admission. I often tell new students that the strategies in performance of the hand games events are not to be missed. Then again, I’m personally drawn to the art, film, theater, and writing competitions because I see the foundational output of creative minds whose work I may find in a textbook in years to come. Of course nothing is as intense as watching the Knowledge and Science Bowl rounds pass in silent animation and respect. Still I love discovering the student research displayed in the poster competition, and I’m wowed by the business plans invented by the Business Bowl participants. The powwow is always amazing and it draws some of the best dancers together for an event that is unforgettable. Then again, if you ask a speech coach like me, I’d say that nothing compares to the performances found in the competitions. TCUs produce talented orators, and the messages our students share are both potent and invigorating.
Each year I attend the AIHEC student conference I’m consistently revitalized. The event is equal parts celebration, competition, and congeniality. I’ve witnessed countless instances where students from all TCUs were both humble in victory and gracious in defeat. I’ve seen awards banquets where students cheer just as loudly for another school’s triumphs as they do for their own successes. I’ve seen friendships form that I’m certain will produce positive change in the years to come. Whether we meet in Rapid City, Bismarck, Green Bay, or Billings, the conference proves that American Indian education knows no geographical limits. Its spirit and message is fluid, and wherever we go I find evidence that TCU students are among the best our country has to offer.
Over the past few conferences we’ve been treated to decorated voices who’ve shared their encouragement with us. We’ve been welcomed by mayors and governors, and, of course, many esteemed TCU presidents. We’ve met Olympian Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) and embraced his message of perseverance as we heard him recount his gold medal run. We’ve received reassurance from numerous TCU alumni who explain how they built upon their education and achieved national and international success. We saw a one-man theatrical performance by the decorated actor Val Kilmer, and the following morning we listened as he told us to follow our passions into a career we’ll love. We’ve even witnessed one of the brilliant last performances of the legendary, ground-breaking comedian Charlie Hill (Oneida/Mohawk) who walked on this past December.
The AIHEC collective just celebrated its fortieth year of ensuring “strong tribal sovereignty through excellence in American Indian higher education” and so it’s exciting to witness our students display the leadership skills that will guide TCUs for generations to come. This truth is perhaps most transparent in the evolution our elected AIHEC student government representatives make from their conference campaigns and their eventual elections. The following year we witness the growth they’ve undergone throughout their terms, as they both discuss their accomplishments and pass the torch to the incoming representatives. The student conference is proof that Indian education will continue to flourish through sound leadership fostered at TCUs.
Forty years after their inception, TCUs have changed the lives of generations of students and empowered numerous Indian nations. The future of TCUs is invigorating and on full display every year at AIHEC’s student conference. But don’t simply take my word for it. If you’ve never been to the AIHEC student conference, then it’s time for you to join us.
You can find more information on the conference at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) website: http://www.aihec.org/.
Ryan Winn teaches English, Theater, and Communications at College of Menominee Nation (Keshena, WI), where he also coaches the college’s AIHEC speech team.