Wasewi Shawl was a champion runner, so she knows that races are won by putting one foot in front of the other.
But when the Browning, Montana native started college, she had no idea that the race for her degree would become a marathon rather than the sprint she once envisioned.
"I think if the me who started here saw the me of today, she'd be surprised," said Shawl, who received a bachelor's degree in community health from Montana State University on Saturday, May 7, almost seven years after she began. "I have had some hard times here, but they helped make me who I am. And I like who I am, so I'm glad for them."
If those thoughts sound mature for a 25-year-old, it is because Shawl, who is slight and soft-spoken, has stood tall against disappointments that might have broken someone else, and she has found redemption on the other side.
Shawl is the current Miss Blackfeet, representing her tribe in pow wows and Native American gatherings across the West. She recently became one of few women selected twice as the ceremonial Head Woman Dancer for the MSU Indian Club Pow Wow. She is mulling over where she will pursue a master's degree next year, with eventual plans to helping counsel Native athletes as well as someone who will improve health in Indian communities.
Her life is full, yet it is very different from the life she envisioned for herself when she first came to MSU on a running scholarship. And, it could have been easy for her to stop mid-stride.
"I dreamed of one day running in the Olympics," said Shawl, who was also an excellent high school basketball player. She had won state in the 1,600 meter as both a sophomore and a junior and track was her passion. Her second passion was becoming a nutritionist, a major offered at MSU and a prime reason for her coming to Bozeman.
When she came to MSU she thought she was in good shape. She had overcome an injury that cost her senior high school season and was happy to make the MSU track team by finishing in an initial qualifying race. However, a clerical mistake involving her transcript and the NCAA meant that she had to sit out her first season. Then, she was plagued with a string of injuries. Soon, she was faced with her kryptonite—chemistry, which was necessary to her major.
"I wanted to do well in school and I wanted to do well at the college level in track," she recalled. "I felt like I was falling short in everything."
After a disastrous first two years, Shawl came back for her third year at MSU ready to try out for the team again and was academically ineligible. Shawl recalls that she was heartbroken.
"I felt so defeated—that the rug had been ripped from under my feet," she said. "I felt like I had failed again." She started classes, but after two weeks knew that she didn't have the heart to continue. It was hard, she said, because she was stubborn, but also because as an athlete, she was trained not to stop in the middle of her race.
"I needed to stop and collect myself," she said. She initially thought she'd take off a semester, but that turned into a year. She went to live with family and was able to reconnect and build stronger relationships with them. She also became an evangelical Christian.
"I realized then that I am more than my situation," she said. "I realized it was time for me to have a new dream."
After the year off, she loaded all of her clothes on the bus and returned to Bozeman, not even knowing where she would live.
"But I knew then, that everything was going to work out," she said. "I knew God would see me through."
She moved into the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship house. She said the move was great not only because it is located across the street from campus, "but it is refreshing to be in that environment. It has helped me grow as a Christian and as a person." Her faith, she said, has taught her to be wiser.
She thought about trying to run again when she returned, but decided to concentrate on her studies. And, she had done enough research in her year off to realize that she could still effectively serve Native communities with a degree in community health. She said she wouldn't call herself a great student, although her grades improved when she came back to MSU the second time.
"I had to teach myself that it's only taking it day by day that you get where you want to go," Shawl said.
Shawl plans to begin graduate school at either MSU or the University of Montana in the fall and will eventually return to Browning after receiving the practical experience that will help her community. She also would like to start an organization of Native Americans who could counsel Indian athletes.
Shawl has also been serving her community this year as Miss Blackfeet.
"(Friends) told me that what I had experienced in my life would make me a good representative," she said. "They said I am a woman who could wear the crown in a good way."
Jim Burns, MSU Native American student adviser, concurs that Shawl is a great example to fellow Native American students because of her persistence and courage as well as her ability to gracefully represent her heritage in doing so.
"Wasewi is an amazing young lady who has been able to achieve her goals, in spite of so many trials and obstacles," Burns said. "I believe Wasewi is representative of so many students who face adversity, such as academic and personal struggles, but never give up and persevere."
Shawl said if she were to offer advice to other students who are struggling, it would be to see the challenges as learning opportunities.
"Sometimes, you have to go through hard times and make mistakes to learn from them," she said. "It's a matter of being able to understand what those mistakes have taught you."