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A Woman on the Move: Sasheene Denny and Her Cambridge Education

Shasheene Denny, 25, spent her childhood moving around and could now be the first Native American student at the University of Cambridge in England.
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When Sasheene Denny, 26, says she just drifted from high school to high school and tomorrow she��s leaving to attend the University of Cambridge, one of the oldest and best universities in the world, you have to wonder how she got here.

Denny, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin/Anishinaabe, was born in Milwaukee, moved to Green Bay, lived near the Oneida Reservation until she was about 12, moved to California and lived there for about three years, then moved Chattanooga, followed by stints in Wisconsin, South Dakota and New Mexico before heading back to Wisconsin. “I’ve been to almost every kind of school. I’ve been in traditional high schools, alternative high schools and charter schools where I pretty much independently worked on my own.”

She graduated from Spotted Eagle High School in Milwaukee as valedictorian and got a scholarship to go to any Wisconsin school, “but I wasn’t really ready, so I held back for about a year, then I went into a technical college just to get general education done. Later somebody turned me on to Alverno College [a Catholic women’s college in Milwaukee], and that was a really good fit.” Denny graduated with honors in 2013.

During her last semester, Denny heard about the Davies-Jackson Scholarship. She applied and was shocked to win one of the two scholarships awarded that year. Funded anonymously, the scholarship gives graduating seniors with exceptional academic records who are the first in their families to graduate from college the opportunity to study at the St. John’s College at Cambridge. Denny is in her second year and expects to graduate in June with a second B.A., which would be equivalent to a Master’s in the U.S.


St-Johns-Bridge-over-the-River-Cambridge: St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge in England was founded by the estate of Lady Mary Beaufort, King Henry VII’s mother and grandmother of King Henry VIII), in 1511. Kitchen Bridge is part of St. John’s College.

Denny talks about her roving childhood. “My family is very, very close knit, which explains why I’ve moved around so much. My aunt’s in the gaming world, so she moves around a lot. And her sister, my mom, tends to want to be near her. That goes for the rest of my family. We all want to be near each other. So ultimately we end up moving to the same places.”

She says she found moving from high school to high school difficult in terms of friends. “Where I made friends it would never really last because I would move. But after a while I found it almost refreshing. Maybe I had a little bit of wanderlust when I was younger. Wanderlust is probably part of the reason I applied for the scholarship. It was a chance, a one-in-one-million chance, but if I got it, I could travel the world.” And that she has begun to do, touring Europe from the Canary Islands to Prague. “That’s something that nobody in my family has ever done. Nobody I’ve known has ever been out of the country.”

Denny says academic life at Cambridge is extremely rigorous with almost every hour taken up with studying, reading and writing. “Ultimately I really, really want to be a writer, whether it’s writing history in academia or writing novels. I just want to write.”

She studies history because it has always fascinated her and because “I feel that the world right now has a dysfunctional relationship with its past. When I was younger I saw things that our people faced that are much more alarming than most other ethnicities. I saw a lot of alcoholism. I saw a lot of rampant sexual abuse…. I would always wonder why these things keep happening to people I know. I realized part of that answer is in the past and in the treatment of our people in the past, things like historical trauma. I realized that the past has a huge part in making sense of the present, and also in building a better future.”

Denny says Cambridge is an amazing place, but its has problems just as other universities do. “There’s a lot of cultural appropriation that’s taking place, unknowingly, because they’re not confronted with Native Americans in their day-to-day lives. There are no faces here that look like mine. There are no Native Americans on the entire island.” That may be an exaggeration, but her advisor has said she might be the first Native American to attend Cambridge.

“Other than that, Cambridge is absolutely amazing. My school is just like Hogwarts and I’m a huge Potterhead!” she says.

Denny says she was raised by strong women and because of them—and because of Alverno—she has become a feminist. “I’d always been around strong women but it had been family. I’d never really met women who were like that in everyday life until at Alverno I ran into a lot of absolutely amazing women and I was also in an environment that told women, you are an individual and your voice matters.” Her feminism, says Denny, is one of the most important things she wants people to know about her.

“Feminism is probably the strongest motivator to me. I definitely want to work to include Native American women in the historical narrative. And help people realize that we are forgotten quite often. That’s the most important part of what I would want people to know about me. I want to help my people. I want to be part of this fight.”