Robin Maxkii never thought she would go to college.
As a teen and young adult, Maxkii, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, viewed college as a pipe dream, something that was unrealistic and unattainable; something reserved for the privileged, elite—or fictional.
“I never realized it was something I could do,” she said. “For everyone I grew up around, college wasn’t really something we did. We knew about places like Harvard, and we knew about Harry Potter and all those magic schools, but we didn’t know people who actually went to college.”
Maxkii is a first-generation college student. She earned an associate degree in 2014 from Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, and she’s now pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana. But her path to college was a meandering one.
Maxkii’s childhood years were split between Houston, Texas, and the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Wisconsin. She left home at age 15 and stumbled into a career as a production assistant for films like “Autopsy,” “Love and Mary,” and “The Great Debaters.” She also managed a blog dedicated to discussions about blood quantum and tribal sovereignty.
“I was working, so I thought I didn’t need school,” she said. “I had sat in classes, but they all seemed to disregard what life was like on reservations.”
Maxkii was in her mid-20s when she enrolled in classes at Diné College, located on the Navajo Nation. One of only a handful of non-Navajo students, she majored in Diné Studies and social and behavioral science, and she ultimately served as student body president.
“Diné College gave me my base,” she said. “Everyone was in the same boat. Everyone was trying to figure things out.”
Maxkii now is attending college on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where she is dual majoring in information technology and psychology. At 29, she’s the archetypical nontraditional student. She has attended two community colleges—both of them tribal—and navigated an education system that often is not student-friendly.
And she collected accolades along the way: scholarships and internships from the American Indian College Fund and Quality Education for Minorities/National Science Foundation. She’s also involved with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit initiative tasked with reforming higher education and ensuring success for community college students.
That’s what made her the perfect candidate to introduce Dr. Jill Biden on February 20 at Achieving the Dream’s annual Institute on Student Success in Baltimore. Maxkii was one of six community college students selected to participate on a panel discussion for an audience of representatives from 200 colleges and various corporate and philanthropic investors.
Craig Huey, Achieving the Dream
Robin Maxkii and Dr. Jill Biden pose for a photo at Achieving the Dream’s Annual Institute on Student Success.
“On this panel, we tried to reflect the diversity of our network and students who had been there,” said Carol Lincoln, senior vice president for Achieving the Dream. “We wanted students of different ages, different ethnic backgrounds, different college experiences.”
Achieving the Dream organizers asked Maxkii to introduce Biden on the final day of the institute. She accepted and wrote her own speech, incorporating some of her experiences in community colleges.
“It was nerve-wracking because I was escorted by the Secret Service,” Maxkii said. “But then I met Dr. Biden, and she was so warm and genuine.”
Biden, who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, spoke about the “critical role of community colleges in creating the best, most-educated workforce in the world.”
“Many of my students have doubts when they first arrive at college,” Biden said. “They are unsure of their future, unaware of the abilities they possess. Then, two years later, those same students proudly accept their diplomas, knowing that they have achieved something that can never be taken away from them.”
Of the nation’s 18 million undergraduate students, about half are enrolled in community colleges, Biden said. Yet less than half of those students will graduate or transfer to a four-year school within six years.
Achieving the Dream is trying to change that, Lincoln said. The organization is partnering with students like Maxkii to share stories that are compelling, life-changing and often emotional.
“These students tell their stories and often they start crying,” she said. “It’s a really powerful thing for people to hear their stories and understand how the community college experience is changing their lives.”
Only three of the nation’s 34 accredited tribal colleges are part of the Achieving the Dream network. Maxkii has attended two of them.
After she finishes her degree at Salish Kootenai, Maxkii hopes to attend graduate school and research public policies and the potential for technology to help bridge gaps in Native communities. She also wants to teach at a community college.
“It’s a different sort of community, and it’s there for you,” she said. “Community colleges are about shaping you as a person. I don’t know where I’d be without them.”