Lakota student gets education opportunity of a lifetime

KENNEBEC, S.D. - A good way to move into the senior year of high school is to spend a summer studying in a college preparatory program at Princeton University.

Only 54 young people have that opportunity this summer; and David Kastner, a tribal member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, was given the chance of a lifetime to attend the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America scholars program at Princeton. Kastner is one of five American Indian students attending the LEDA scholars program.

''I am very excited to have the opportunity to study at Princeton. An opportunity to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. is one that I would not pass up for anything,'' Kastner said.

Kastner is the first member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe to participate in such a program. He will be a senior at Lyman County High School in Presho. He lives with his family in Kennebec.

The competition for the LEDA scholars program is stiff. Kastner was chosen because of his leadership qualities. He was elected senior class president, participates in football and band, volunteers in and out of school, has a 3.65 GPA and had to submit five essays, one on why he wanted to attend college. He was chosen out of more than 300 applicants.

''The selection criteria was based on things like current course load, extra-curricular activities, athletics, community service, employment, summer activities, letters of recommendation and essays that defined your character and detailed personal characteristics,'' Kastner said.

In addition to all of his class work and community activities, Kastner and his brother have a band. He plays guitar and drums, self records and writes music. He was inducted into the National Honor Society and has been on the A and B honor rolls throughout his middle school and high school years.

To add to his busy schedule, he is the head cook at a steakhouse in Kennebec - Hot Rods - where people come when he is on duty.

''I am a very busy person, but I believe that it's a very good characteristic.''

But education comes first with Kastner.

''Education is very important to me. A person from any background can go very far with a great education if they know how to use it,'' he said.

''I've always been fascinated with learning because my family has pushed me and encouraged me to do my very best academically to better prepare myself for the hard road ahead.''

The LEDA scholars will take classes and participate in other activities intended to help prepare them for enrollment in many colleges and universities.

Kastner has his goal set on a number of elite universities: Dartmouth, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania top off his list. Kastner is leaning toward a major in economics and political science. After achieving a master's degree, his future plans include a return to his home state where he can work with tribes.

While at the Princeton campus, Kastner will work closely with six undergraduate students as residential coordinators. LEDA staff members will stay in close contact with each of the students during their final high school year.

The students will experience a rigorous curriculum on leadership training. The students will also be enrolled in classes that will have discussions and reading assignments to develop writing and analytical skills.

It will not be all study. The students will be exposed to trips in the local area and to New York City, and they will take advantage of art museums, recreational facilities and all summer programs on the Princeton campus.

''This is a critical component of the LEDA scholars program, which will give talented but disadvantaged high school students from across America a unique opportunity to develop the skills and confidence they need to realize their potential and, one day, help guide our nation in ways that serve the common good,'' said Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, who also serves on the LEDA board of directors.

There are two components to the LEDA program. The program was initiated in 1978 in New York City as ''Prep for Prep.'' The newly formed LEDA scholars program includes outstanding students from small-town and rural high schools.

''Getting the award gave me an amazing feeling of accomplishment and confidence because this is a very highly selective program and being a part of it is just great,'' Kastner said.

Kastner is the middle son of Diane and Brett Kastner of Kennebec. His mother was a candidate for the South Dakota Legislature in 2006. He has two brothers: Christopher, his older brother with whom he plays in a band, and Nicholas, his younger brother.