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Ojibwe student finds her way in tribal college

Fond du Lac opens vistas in two worlds

CLOQUET, Minn. -- Spring commencement exercises on tribal college campuses
are breath-taking spectacles that bring home striking notions of higher
educational opportunity for masses of American Indians in remote places. It
was no different this year on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in
northern Minnesota.

The pageantry was stunning. Over 100 shiny, light blue robes were filled
with smiling and tearful faces, contrasted against a blue-domed
amphitheater with natural wooded framework and giant pine log pillars. Half
of the amphitheater circle is located outside, but May's rains chased the
event into the indoor half.

Event speakers reminded the graduates, some of whom wore eagle feathers and
colorful beadwork, that this was only the start of their lives and that
further educational pursuits and fulfilling careers awaited them.

Judy Olson, an Ojibwe woman from the Leech Lake Reservation, tried hard to
concentrate on the solemnity of the occasion, but memories and emotions
flooded her mind as she readied to cross the stage and grasp her Associate
of Science diploma. The day before, this grandmother was selected "Student
of the Year" for her academic excellence and college service.

Tears welled in her eyes as she anticipated leaving the campus that she had
grown to love. Then she glanced back at her daughter, Melissa, who was
beaming at her, squeezed in among the packed house. And there were thoughts
back to a time before Melissa.

It's been 40 years since I first tried this, she thought with some
reluctance, reminiscing about her initial attempt at college in the '60s.

Olson was abandoned or taken away when she was only four months old. After
that there were orphanages, foster homes and in-between places.

"I was all alone," she said as she reminisced back to a time in the early
'50s.

When she was 5 years old, she fell off a dock into a lake.

"I looked up from below the glassy surface of the water expecting someone
to save me," she added pensively. "I was all alone and no one cared. Then I
realized I had to do it myself, so I fought and fought and got out all by
myself." The lesson was firmly implanted in the mind of the little girl.

Adopted by a German family from New Ulm, Minn., Olson was raised at the
site of one of the most savagely-fought battles between Dakota Indians and
white settlers. Over 140 years later, the German towns-folk still re-enact
the battle with the Dakota.

Despite the settlers' town being burned to the ground, "the Indians always
lose," she sighed, looking to see if the metaphor was grasped. She grew up
in the town thinking she was a Dakota Indian.

After leaving New Ulm, there were two marriages, kids and travels around
the country. She and her Assiniboine husband moved to Oakland, Calif.,
where he found work. While there, Judy visited Alcatraz Island during the
1969 -- '70 takeover but couldn't understand the issue.

"Not being able to articulate it, how did it have anything to do with me?"
she commented. It would take years before she really understood Indian
activism.

In 1976, she attended an American Indian Movement rally in Mankato, Minn.,
at the site of the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota Indian leaders who fought at
New Ulm. There, Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt stirred the crowd with
impassioned speeches about injustices against American Indians. This
launched her journey of self-discovery, leading to a search for her real
life.

Traveling to two Ojibwe reservations -- Leech Lake and Lac Courte Oreilles
-- she visited elders who were blood relatives and searched the graveyards
for clues to her heritage.

Eventually she ended up in Minneapolis, working for the Leech Lake Tribe's
Twin Cities office. She spent five years providing needed social services
like legal and housing assistance, emergency food services, counseling and
referral, and ICWA services. Judy also discovered tribal politics.

During her search she began a personal relationship with the pipe and
received her spiritual name, Naanii'gwaun, from Tobisanikwat, the renowned
Ojibwe spiritual leader from Mikinak Onigaming, Ontario. Intending to
follow the Midewiwin way of life, Judy steered her career to health service
among Ojibwe communities of northern Minnesota.

She also discovered, following knee surgery, that her eating habits were
creating excess weight pressure on her knees and threatening a diabetic
condition.

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"My daughter gave me the book "Seven Weeks to Sobriety" and I read the
nutritional chapter," she said.

"I read it and had an epiphany," she continued, "and saved myself and my
life."

By ridding sugar, wheat, dairy and frybread from her system, she eliminated
chronic problems and diabetes. "I decided to become a dietician," she
noted, elaborating on her intense interest in science.

Melissa, who was familiar with Minnesota campuses, recommended the Fond du
Lac Tribal and Community College to her mother. Through an online search,
she learned of a "2 + 2" program in nutrition at the college with an
automatic transfer arrangement to the University of Minnesota.

In the midst of her first visit to the campus in May 2003, and while
working with an official on course scheduling, someone remarked, "Oh,
there's a bear outside."

"We went outside to see the bear near the main building and two men were
standing close to it, talking to it in Ojibwe," she stated.

"Suddenly, the bear stood up and it was a whole head taller than the men. I
said, 'This is it ... this is my sign ... I'm bear clan!'" she declared,
describing her sudden decision to enroll in the college.

Founded in 1987, the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College is the only
institution in the nation that is both a tribal college and a state
community college. Created this way to serve a diverse ethnic regional
population and to benefit from state construction funding, the college in
the early 1990s built phases of classrooms, labs, library and a dormitory
amidst a spectacular 38-acre red pine tree plantation, matching stunning
natural architecture against the northern woodland environment. The campus
was constructed around symbolic tribal design concepts -- the circle (ring
road); the four directions represented by the building wings, each with
their own four colors on exterior walls; and huge windows that connect
students and staff with the sky and outdoor surroundings.

Over 1,000 full-time students are served in broad liberal arts and science
fields, with special emphasis in natural sciences, math, history and
behavioral science, and the humanities. Special programs in American Indian
(Anishinaabeg) studies, criminal justice and law enforcement, and
environmental science, as well as many other fields, make this campus one
of the most appealing career starting places in the nation, Indian or not.

Beginning once again, Olson moved to northern Minnesota with great
apprehension, alone and unsure about her future. Within two months she
connected with a caring faculty, buoyant student peers and a campus climate
rich with learning. Soon, she was getting A's and drawn into student
government.

"Judy's been like a mother to me," said Joan Johnson, student activities
coordinator at the college. Johnson described Olson's blossoming at the
college and the length to which students had come to depend upon her for
leadership.

"She'll be a great registered dietician," said Johnson as she pondered
Judy's next move to the University of Minnesota, where she'll complete her
B.S. degree in nutrition.

Olson slowly looked around the student commons and amphitheater, and softly
murmured, "I'm going to miss this place." Then she rose and walked
confidently over to a group of students who greeted her with comments and
smiles.

Things to consider when choosing a college

* Do you want to leave home to attend college? Or do you have family ties
or job obligations that keep you close to home? If so, what colleges are
nearby? Do they offer the courses you want?

* If your dream is to live on campus during college, be part of a large
student body and compete with students from all walks of life, then a
four-year mainstream college may be the answer for you. (By mainstream, we
mean a college or university that serves the general population.) If not,
you may want to consider a smaller community college or a tribal college.

* A two-year community college is usually less expensive and more flexible
in its admissions policies than a four-year university. On the other hand,
the university will offer more advanced course work, and you may find it
has a more challenging environment. Of course, you can always start at a
two-year school and transfer later.

Also keep in mind that if you go to an instate public college or
university, you will pay less tuition than if you go out of state. And a
private school is usually much more expensive than a public school,
although some students get enough financial aid to make up for the
difference in cost.

* If the career you've chosen involves technical training, you may decide
to go to a technical or business school instead of college. Keep in mind,
however, that some technical schools are almost as expensive as college.
It's also very important to check out a technical school's credentials and
job-placement success because these schools vary widely in quality.

* If you want to attend a school that's geared specifically to the needs of
Indian students, you may wish to consider a tribal college.

* After you narrow down your choices, call or write each school for
information. Or, ask your high school guidance counselor for the
information you need. Compare costs and courses. Talk it over with your
family. Then, if possible, try to visit three or four of your top choices
to see which school feels right for you.