GRAYSLAKE, Ill. -- The most important thing a high school student can do to
get into the right college or university -- and get financial assistance
for it -- is to plan ahead. Pamela Silas, Menominee, executive director of
the American Indians in Science and Engineering Society in Albuquerque,
N.M., said it's never too early to start preparing one-self for secondary
"Our philosophy has been that you need to do some work in high school
before you go to college," she said. "Some of the course-work you complete
and experiences you have in high school are a large part of your
application process. Those extracurricular activities do make a
Seek out opportunities to go to pre-college camps, take a trip, do research
or participate in science fairs. Silas pointed out that placing in a
science fair isn't as important as participating, both for resume-building
Summer experiences will also help on those college applications. "I know
they're precious, those fleeting summers, but use them," she urged.
Silas said nowadays many of the harder subjects, such as algebra and
sciences, have become electives in many high schools. She strongly
recommended that you elect them, because you'll benefit doubly. "Through
that coursework, you'll also develop relationships with instructors in
those programs," she said. "They are invaluable in helping you get into
college. Finding a mentor in high school is very instrumental. Ask him or
her to write references for you. Ask your teacher or mentor to talk about
their own experiences -- where did they go? How did they get there?"
While it is especially hard for many first-generation college students,
Silas recommends seeking out other types of support. This was even harder
to do before the advent of the Internet, but more people and resources are
accessible to students now. You can establish and nurture an online
relationship with a mentor from anywhere in the world and any walk of life.
Some of the students who attended the 2005 International Science Fair in
Phoenix, Ariz., spoke about mentorship -- not just role models from afar,
but having a relationship with someone with whom you feel a connection.
That may be a teacher, counselor, relative or friend who encouraged their
dreams. One woman met a scientist on a field trip and stayed in contact
afterward. That person became her guiding force; she placed in that fair.
Fifteen-year-old Aurelia DeNasha, Lac Courte Oreilles, is a sophomore at
Fond du Lac Ojibwe School in Cloquet, Minn. Her project on the effect of
muskrat behavior on the growth of wild rice won first place in the 2005
International Science Fair, the American Veterinary Medical Association
Award and $1,000.
"I couldn't just say one person alone is responsible; it's not just one
person who has helped me get where I am," said DeNasha. "I've gotten help
from lots of different people: my mom, my science teachers Leslie Hoffman
and Pat Kohlin, and Holly Pellerin at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community
College; plus the folks at the National Science Foundation.
Mostly, my science teachers were the ones who started the science fair and
encouraged me to keep going. After starting it, the tribe heard about the
fair, saw my project, and have been helping me ever since. My science
teachers have also given me lots of contacts."
DeNasha is very determined to go to college; she hasn't yet decided where
she wants to go, or what particular part of science she wants to study. One
thing she is sure about: "I know I'd like to continue in the science fair.
Being at the international level has inspired me to keep going -- I like it
Her advice for other high-schoolers? "Just stick with it. I know from
experience that if you're taking biology there are lots of different parts
of it. Stick with it until you find your particular talent in it. Find what
you love to do."
DeNasha's mother, Linda Ferguson, is very proud of her daughter's
achievements. "I just think it's fantastic how everyone works together to
support the kids," said Ferguson. "Within our community, this has done
amazing things. Partnerships were formed, such as the one between the Fond
du Lac Tribe and the National Science Foundation.
"The science fair does wonders for showing what the students are capable of
doing, and what they're able to bring back to their communities. I know
this had an impact on both Aurelia and Matt Hammitt [Fond du Lac], a
Cloquet Senior High School student who also won first place, an American
Indian Science and Engineering Society Award, plus $1,000." Both winners
are being offered scholarships and even paid internships for the summer.
Ferguson added, "Doors have been opening for [Aurelia] right and left --
she's really blessed by that."
Ferguson also found it very encouraging for her daughter's peers to see her
doing so well. "You should have seen her first school science project two
years ago. Kids were eating up what she did, then they were trying to outdo
her the next year!"
Silas thinks it's a good idea to make a scrapbook or portfolio of your work
and accomplishments in high school. "When you look at stellar students who
get great jobs out of college, you can see their skill sets building in
high school," said Silas. This is so important as you begin the process of
applying to colleges...and for financial aid.
Most scholarships are tied to the options one finds while exploring
universities. "If you have the kind of high school background that shows
your interest, the universities will invest in you," said Silas.
The application process is arduous but well worth it, according to Silas.
"Take the time to apply -- this is not something your parents can do. Each
application will be more than one page, and you'll need to write essays
that explain your dreams and why are you worth the investment of money."
Silas also encouraged students to get help writing their application
essays. Find someone like a science teacher or community member who has
been successful in getting money through application or grant writing.
Check with a community center, such as the American Indian Center in
Chicago -- they have volunteers who help students with both college and
financial aid applications.
Organizations like the AISES have a waiting list. Realize that not everyone
who applies will get in. Silas pointed out that sometimes minority funding
for other schools are never even touched.
Check with the American Indian Graduate Center (www.aigc.com) or the
American Indian College Fund (www.collegefund.org). Ask the financial aid
department of a school in which you're interested where their students get
This is another point where having relationships in high school helps.
Silas' daughter joined her high school physics club; the club leader -- a
staff member -- helped her find funding for college.
Another tip from Silas: "Like the lottery, you gotta play to win -- if you
want to get funded with two good scholarships, you may need to apply for
10. Chicago's American Indian Center's Positive Pasts Program not only
helps fill out applications, they can also help with application fees. Not
having the money for application fees shouldn't prevent you from applying.
Look for support within your school, your community, your state."
BENEFITS TO THE COMMUNITY
In almost all the AISES programs, the compelling success stories contain
two main elements:
* They saw themselves where they wanted to be: "I want to help my people."
One student was doing samples for water quality and wondered, "What would
it be like to make a living doing this?"
* Someone helped them, whether it was a high school teacher, someone in the
community or even a working scientist. Along the way, somebody helped them.
Does AISES educate students to leave their communities? Silas said,
"Absolutely not -- but we focus on individual paths; we don't steer anyone
anywhere. Whether our students go on to fight treaty rights with regard to
the environment, or work at Boeing to help make technology for making
airfare more accessible, both are of benefit of communities. This is true
even if individuals don't return to their specific neighborhood or
The AISES annual college guide comes out every fall as a special issue of
its Winds of Change magazine. There are 167 AISES college chapters, with
over 3,000 members nationwide. In addition, there are 200 affiliated K --
12 schools; they join the society primarily to get help with career and
science fairs, and connect to the National American Indian Science and
Engineering Fair. A link on its Web site, www.wocmag.org/, gives 10 tips
for writing college essays and answers questions like, "Should I go to
Another helpful Web site is www.aaip.com/student/index3. html. The
Association of American Indian Physicians offers many links and resource
information for high school and college students.
Today there are more opportunities for Native students than ever before. If
you want to go to college, the message here is clear: reach out and find
help -- you can do it!