Isaiah Rodriguez (Laguna) had no idea he was about to do anything monumental when he visited the offices of Catching the Dream (CTD) in Albuquerque, New Mexico in January 2008. He just knew he wanted to have enough money to attend the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH), his dream college.
When he returned several weeks later, he had identified 102 scholarships; he applied for all of them, and won 70. This total set a record for CTD, which for 25 years has been giving scholarships to Native American college students. The previous record was 54, and Marianne Ragins from Macon, Georgia set the world record for all students, 200, in 1991. (Parade Magazine did a two-page spread about her that year.) Contrary to what most people think, there is no limit to the number of scholarships an individual student can win—the Financial Aid program, which has been in place since 1966, is based on need, and there are limits, but the old system (scholarships) is based on merit, and has never had limitations. Both Marianne and Isaiah got to keep all the money they earned.
What makes Isaiah’s story even more remarkable is that he had been a high school dropout, and was away from school for five years before deciding it was time to enroll again. “I was raised on the reservation and lived there traditionally,” Isaiah explained. “My mother Priscilla Rodriguez is from the village of Paraje—which is where we lived—in the middle of the Pueblo of Laguna. However, my stepfather, a Hispanic and retired, didn’t accept my mother’s culture. He felt it was ungodly and satanic. He was very possessive. He wouldn’t allow my mom to speak to us in our language. We were not allowed to go to feasts or visit relatives. He moved us to Espanola. In a struggle to keep her children tied to her heritage, my mother enrolled my brother and me in the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS). Two years later, my parents divorced.
“I lived at SFIS for two years with my little brother Elijah and then moved to Albuquerque in 2003. We lived with our mother again. School at Del Norte High in Albuquerque was very different from the Indian school. Academically the classes at Del Norte High were very easy.”
Isaiah dropped out of high school at 16. He still had two years to go before graduating, but since his family had no income, he felt he had to go to work to support his family. He worked as a line cook for the next five years at Johnny Carina’s Italian restaurant in Albuquerque until one day in 2006 he woke up and realized that the life he was living wasn’t enough for him. “I didn’t have a penny to my name when I started back to school,” Isaiah said. “I borrowed a dollar and took a bus to the Plasma Center downtown. I had read in a newspaper that I could get $45 in a week for donating plasma. All I needed was $25 to apply for the GED exam at the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute (TVI). I got the money and registered. In April of 2006, I enrolled at TVI and about three weeks later I took the test. I passed with flying colors.”
He then enrolled at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque in 2006. “I sold my electric piano for $300 to pay for the $280 tuition,” he said. “The piano was my pride and joy. I had purchased it only four months earlier.”
He was motivated to get a degree from SIPI in Vision Technology in part because of his family. “My grandmother Ernestina Ohmsitte had glaucoma and is now blind,” he said. “Her blindness could have been prevented if she had visited an eye doctor one year earlier. She woke up one morning and couldn’t see.”
When he finished at SIPI, he was the top student on campus academically, and was also president of the student government. “SIPI taught me all the basics,” he said. I was determined to as well as I could,” he told us. “I wanted to be the top of the class and I made it.” Isaiah will graduate from UHH in 2013 with a degree in Agriculture. Isaiah found that UHH was harder than he had expected. “Things didn’t go so well in the first semester,” he said. “But I bounced back. In fact, this past semester I made an A in all my classes.”
“Students have to have high grades, high test scores, leadership ability, and understanding of problems to win scholarships. We need a new generation of dedicated Indian young people to deal with the problems of Indian country, including lack of employment, poor education, and lack of health care. That is the whole rationale for our scholarship program at Catching the Dream,” said CTD President James Lujan, a former governor of Taos Pueblo and one of the co-founders of CTD.
Isaiah embraces that goal. “My brothers and I were taught not to acknowledge our traditions by our stepfather. I now know firsthand how it feels to be degraded for being Indian. With that in mind, I can dedicate my future and education to all American Indians.”
Isaiah is very proud of his accomplishments—he went from high-school dropout to college graduate in seven years. After suffering some health problems, his mother Priscilla recovered, and is now getting ready to go to college herself. Both she and little brother Elijah will be starting at SIPI in the summer. Their cousin Jessica, whom Priscilla raised, also earned her GED and is working.
From having four dropouts from high school, this proud Indian family could have three college graduates in a few years.
A conversation with James Lujan, Catching the Dream president
“We encourage applicants to apply to all the sources of scholarships they can find,” said CTD President James Lujan, a former governor of Taos Pueblo and one of the co-founders of CTD. “But Isaiah took his search to the highest level. We are really proud of him.” Gov. Lujan was the dean and president of SIPI for almost 30 years before he retired in 2005.
“The previous record for total scholarships before Isaiah was 54,” Lujan said. “Isaiah set the bar really high. He demonstrated that Indian students can compete with anybody if they put their minds to it. We have to deal with many misconceptions about scholarships. One is that there is a limit to the number of scholarships a student can win. That misconception was proved wrong for all time by Isaiah.
“Another misconception is that there is a lot of scholarship money for Indians,” Lujan said. “In fact, there are only a few scholarships dedicated just to Indians. But Fastweb now has 1.5 million scholarships in its database. Students should look for all the scholarships they can find, not just Indian scholarships.
“Yet another misconception is that people can get scholarships just by applying. The truth is that students have to compete for scholarships. They have to earn the scholarships. Scholarships are based on merit, not need. Financial aid, which is federal government money, is based on need. But scholarships are much older, going back 400 years to the founding of Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary.”
Dean Chavers is the director at Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program in Albuquerque. Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.