Graduation time is always one of excitement and celebration, and dare I say for the students—stress! When my daughter was about to graduate from college last year, some days she would say or to text me, “Mom, I don’t want to be an adult today.” My response: “me neither.” But it is what we do. We get up each day and face the challenges before us. It is our choice as to whether or not we do it with a positive and optimistic outlook or if we let the struggle of any given day get to us. When you stare down the face of your final semester and all of the projects, papers, final exams that come with being in your final semester, it can be a daunting and overwhelming task. Some of you have not only the pressures of school, but financial obligations, work and professional commitments, family obligations and pressures.
Your accomplishments in college are the result of all your efforts—with a shout out to the family, faculty, and others who supported you. Remember the hard times and all of the good times of your journey at your tribal college. You are part of something greater than yourself. You are a part of shattering the dire statistics in Indian Country that we are all too often reminded of in the media. You are part of a movement, the tribal college movement. I am not a tribal college graduate, but I wish I was. I cannot think of a more special thing to have on a resume than being a graduate of a tribal college. I’m proud of my Alma maters—don’t get me wrong—but tribal colleges are something special. They are institutions of tribal sovereignty.
The community you establish at your tribal college will be your lifelong community—mentors and friends who will always be there for you. They have laughed with you, they may have cried with you, there may have been disagreements, but one thing is for sure, the relationships you built at your tribal college and in those classrooms will be part of your foundation forever. You take away not only lessons on English, history, computers, culinary skills, but you also take away life lessons about how to work together, how to navigate conflict, how to come together.
And that brings me to my final point. We need leaders. With your natural resources degree consider working on climate change issues impacting our communities, work in forestry or water resource management offices. With your culinary arts degree work in our resorts, casinos, or other economic development ventures. With your early childhood degree, work in our Head Start programs, become a member of our BIE team. With your network management degree, become one of the critical staff we need in our tribes and tribal entities. With your GIS degree or certificate, work in our energy development office, or in any number of programs we have that rely on this critical data every day to make important decisions about how to use and protect our resources. We need CPA’s, CFO’s, and yes, we even need more lawyers. Indian Country still pays a lot of money to non-Indian law firms to represent their interests. We need people in IHS and our tribal health facilities. There is no job, no activity that doesn’t need another one of our graduates, our tribal college graduates. You live in a time of opportunity. It sometimes may not seem that way, but I graduated law school in 1994 and the only jobs that we were told were available to us if we wanted to serve tribal people were legal aid positions. That is important work, but surely there had to be more options than that. Well, there were not. But that is not the case anymore.
The sky is the limit. Wake up every day and be prepared to choose success. Fill the gaps in the many positions where we need professionals like you. Your future, our future, is all the brighter for it.
Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, J.D., is the acting director of the Bureau of Indian Education.