IOWA CITY, Iowa - Michelle Smith's family has always stressed education, but with five brothers and sisters, her road to college was hardly guaranteed.
Even so, her mother told her not to worry about how the family would pay for her to go to college.
"At the beginning, she always said, 'Yeah, we've got a big family but it will happen. Just go and stay in school; it will work out," Smith said.
Now a junior, Smith, one of the University of Iowa's hundred-odd American Indian students and first recipient of a new scholarship set up by broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw, has to admit that her mother was right.
"It's just really helped to stay in school," she said. "If I didn't have that I don't think I would be able to stay in school."
The scholarship is just one of the ways the university has helped Smith, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, focus on her studies instead of potential roadblocks, she said.
Smith is a member of the Iowa Bioscience Advantage Program, a competitive program encouraging under-represented minority students to study math and science. Smith works in the university radiation oncology laboratory and is on track to apply for the university's pre-nuclear medicine program - a 12-month program that only takes eight new students each year.
If she is accepted and completes the pre-nuclear program, Smith would be qualified to diagnose patients using radiation or could pursue a medical degree.
"I'm still very open-minded, but I'm focusing on medicine and I want to work with people," she said. "My future, I just really want to be able to help people in anything I do."
The University of Iowa has been a national leader in providing higher education opportunities to American Indian and other minority students, said Joe Coulter, associate provost diversity director at the University.
"We've been recognized several times by the American Indian college guide as one of the most successful institutions," said Coulter, a Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma tribal member who also teaches in the school's Carver College of Medicine and American Indian and Native Studies program.
Over the last 10 years, the university's American Indian graduation rate has been better than the graduation rate for any other minority group, he said.
"They don't fit the stereotype of students' struggling," he said. "We're really proud of these students."
The university had a dozen new American Indian students this fall, Coulter said. Of last year's 125 native students, 70 were undergraduates and the rest are graduate and professional students. Several native students are studying in the law and medical schools, dentistry and pharmacy programs.
Only half the university's American Indian students come from the state, Coulter said. Out-of-state students who belong to any of the 13 tribes historical to Iowa can attend the University at resident rates through the school's Iowa First Nations Program.
Last January, Tom Brokaw, anchorman and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, established an American Indian scholarship fund with a donation of $50,000 to the University of Iowa Foundation. A similar scholarship is awarded each year to an entering freshman native woman, he said.
"It's basically intended for an entering freshman student that has financial need," Coulter said. "What's interesting is all the entering freshman had other scholarships, so we ended up giving it to a sophomore."
Many tribes have education funds to help tribal members go to school, Coulter said. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, for example, provides students with some money for school clothes, expenses and tuition.
As a Seminole Nation leader, Smith's great grandfather Thomas Coker worked with federal and tribal governments to make those funds available for students. According to family stories, he did that with his descendents in mind, Smith said.
"I guess you could say he had an eye out for me, for all his children to succeed," she said.
As an American Indian, Smith said she has been able to participate in a number of programs to help her succeed. At Triad High School in St. Jacob, Ill., she participated in the American Indian Science and Engineering camp for four summers. There she met like-minded Native American students from all over the country.
In her spare time, Smith volunteers in different units at the hospital and reads to children. Volunteering has always been important to her, she said. In the past, she has volunteered at nursing homes and taught Sunday school at her hometown church in Collinsville, Ill.
Her parents, Jimmy Smith and Johanna Smith, still live in Illinois with her four younger brothers and sisters. Johanna has recently gone back to school and is at the top of her nursing school class.
Both are tremendous role models in her life, Smith said adding that she also has learned much from her grandmother, Maxine Trubshaw, and aunts Mary F. McCormick and Dora Young.
"Without people like them, I wouldn't know how to be a leader," she said. "With them being a minority and a leader you see them do it and think 'Wow, I can do it too.'
"They're very strong willed, especially about education. That's the kind of stories I hear is 'we'll make it.'"