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American Indian College Fund celebrates students, donors

NEW YORK - When Trivia Afraid of Lightning was a young girl, she was told that she was a person who was least likely to succeed, that she would never finish school because she wasn't smart enough and that she would never amount to much.

Now, the American Indian College Fund scholarship student is poised to graduate with honors from Oglala Lakota College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature and communications.

''I let other people know that regardless of where you came from, what happened to you in life and who said what about you, you can achieve your dream. Regardless of what anyone has said, I am very strong within me. I don't care what anybody thinks. I'm going to the top until I can't reach any further,'' Afraid of Lightning, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told a cheering, whistling crowd of more than 300 people at the AICF's Flame of Hope Gala Nov. 8.

The black-tie event took place at the Delegates Dining Room on the fourth floor of the United Nations building and featured a gourmet dinner, special guests, awards, presentations, music and dance.

The gala celebrates the success of the country's tribal colleges, honors the fund's supporters and raises funds for American Indian students' scholarships. Last year's event successfully raised more than $270,000.

The AICF was founded in 1989 to raise money for Indian students. Dine' College, the first tribal college, opened in 1968 and served 300 Navajo students. Since then, more than 30 tribal colleges have opened and now serve more than 31,000 degree-seeking students. The fund distributed nearly $4.2 million in scholarships and program support to tribal colleges in 2005.

Rick Williams, AICF's president and CEO since 1997, introduced the guests and made the presentations. Williams, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is a leader, educator, advocate and historian who has dedicated his life to promoting Indian education and the success of tribal peoples. He introduced Dine' College President Ferlin Clark, who performed an opening prayer, the heart of which was for ''peace, beauty and harmony'' in all the directions.

Master of Ceremonies Vanessa Short Bull, Lakota, moved the evening along with humor and grace. Her long resume of accomplishments includes being crowned the first American Indian Miss South Dakota, working as a registered nurse with the IHS and serving as an Army Reserve officer. Currently, she is a spokesman for Nike's new Air Native N7 shoe along with Native pro golfer Notah Begay.

Corporate and media awards were presented to Toyota and The New York Times advertising department. Since 1999, Toyota has given almost half a million dollars to American Indian education. The New York Times advertising department was honored for its complimentary advertising space in The New York Times Magazine, which has exposed millions of affluent, educated people to the fund and its message of scholarship for Indian students.

The evening was punctuated with music and dance from the Redhawk Dance Troupe and the Bacon Brothers, featuring actor Kevin Bacon on vocals, guitar, harmonica and percussion.

The stars of the evening were AICF scholarship recipients and the Volunteer of the Year.

Mary Beth Jiron, Isleta Pueblo, is a senior at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M. Her work, the ''Three Corn Maidens,'' was selected by the AICF for its exclusive collection of blankets produced by Pendleton Woolen Mills. Proceeds from the sales of the blankets provide scholarships for American Indian students. The blanket can be viewed and purchased at www.collegefund-store.org.

Afraid of Lightning told the story of her struggle through a poverty-stricken childhood, her grandmother's death when she was 11 years old that resulted in her taking on the responsibilities of raising her young family members, to getting pregnant before graduating high school, and a disastrous and abusive six-year marriage. Divorced in her mid-20s with two small children, she realized she had no education, no job experience and no options. That's when she decided to go back to school and sought help from the AICF.

''I never thought I would ever, ever, ever get a scholarship; but when I received the Citigroup scholarship, my aspirations, my determination and my desires and goals totally changed. When I first went to school, I did it in order to get a better paying job - better than minimum wage; but when I got the scholarship, it made me realize that someone was investing in me and believed that I could do better than what I had originally planned,'' Afraid of Lightning said.

Volunteer of the Year Judith Gott became involved with the AICF five years ago when she took one of the fund's college tours.

''You ought to know when a donor connects to the mission of the fund,'' Williams said. On Gott's first tribal college tour: ''You could see the connection in Judi's eyes. She listened. She laughed. She cried. She celebrated. She sang and she danced.''

At her first tribal college graduation, Gott said she saw single moms and grandmothers who were attending college so that they could be better role models for their children and grandchildren.

''And I realized that that diploma empowered each student's dream. It blew me away, and so what I really want to say is the need for financial aid is great at all colleges, but in particular at American Indian tribal colleges. And by being here tonight, I believe that we can be assured that the AICF will continue its mission and that its good work will go on. Education truly is hope for American Indian students,'' Gott said.

For more information, visit www.collegefund.org.