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Two Native American Students, Two Different College Experiences

Navigating higher education can be difficult for Native American students. McKayla Gourneau and Dakota LaPlante share their struggles and triumphs.
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McKayla Gourneau and Dakota LaPlante, while both Native American students, have had very different experiences navigating the world of higher education.

Before 20-year-old McKayla Gourneau even walked across the stage to get her diploma May 25, she knew her Ivy League degree from Harvard College would be a stepping stone to helping her Turtle Mountain Reservation community in North Dakota.

By the time Dakota LaPlante finished his undergraduate degree, he was 29 years old and had quit once. The Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota that housed him for 18 years was 11 years in the past and the Bible college his parents paid for when he left home long since abandoned. By the time LaPlante had the degree he needed to get a job, he wasn’t sure he wanted it.

LaPlante, a 2017 graduate of Augsburg College in the heart of the Twin Cities, is one of 104 Native American students to attend the private college 0f 3,537 students in the last year. Students of color make up about 35 percent of Augsburg’s undergraduate program. LaPlante also represents the 9 percent of American Indian and Alaska Natives who have received bachelor’s degrees nationally, compared to the national average of 19 percent for all races and ethnicities, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Despite the 10 percent disparity, LaPlante isn’t sure more college degrees are the answer for Native American communities.


LaPlante was born on the Cheyenne River Reservation in northern South Dakota, about an hour and a half drive northwest from Pierre, the state’s capital. In 2010, the reservation was home to about 8,000 people, 78 percent of which are Native American. Only 6 percent of the Native population had a bachelor’s degree. His Native American father had married three times before he met LaPlante’s mother, a white woman.

LaPlante attended Eagle Butte High School, where Native American students make up 95 percent of the school. Although he grew up surrounded by other Native Americans, LaPlante felt pressured to act like he was white.

“It’s so engrained in our society to idealize white values and white ideals. (I was) realizing that ‘Oh, I’m doing this thing because everyone else is doing it not necessarily because it makes me feel happy,’” LaPlante said.

The family pushed LaPlante to go to college after he graduated, eventually funding his tuition at Association Free Lutheran Bible School in Plymouth, Minnesota. LaPlante agreed, but the religious overtones of the school didn’t sit well with him. He dropped out before ever earning his degree, learned to do his own taxes, took out a credit card and separated from his parents completely.

When teachers tested her in preschool, they noticed Gourneau was performing at a second grade level. Her mother sent her to kindergarten early. Gourneau graduated from Turtle Mountain Community High School two years early when she was 16.

The Turtle Mountain Reservation, home to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and about 8,000 people, had an estimated unemployment rate of about 70 percent in 2010, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe itself has about 30,100 enrolled members.

Gourneau said she applied to several Ivy League schools as a joke—Native American students at Turtle Mountain were always told they would be behind academically. When she started getting acceptance letters from Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Yale, she realized she might be qualified. Before she was even legally considered an adult, Gourneau went to Harvard.

Harvard offers complete financial aid to students whose parents make less than $65,000 a year, meaning Gourneau didn’t pay anything for her college education. A year’s tuition at Harvard is normally $43,208.

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McKayla Gourneau walks through the rain at the Harvard College graduation ceremony May 25. Gourneau graduated when she was just 20 years old.

Halfway through her sophomore year, Gourneau hit rock bottom. She missed her reservation community and having family right next door. She doesn’t think she would have made it to where she is now if she hadn’t become involved with groups like Native Americans at Harvard College and Harvard University Native American Program. Native Americans and Pacific Islanders make up 2.6 percent of the admitted class of 2020.

“When I started school it was honestly a way to escape the reservation,” Gourneau said. “My experiences at Harvard have made it where really now what I want to do is dedicate my time to giving back to not only my reservation, but Indian country as a whole.”


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After withdrawing from school and family, LaPlante settled into life as an independent. He nannied, waited tables and worked as a barista. He didn’t think about college again until 2011, when he reconnected with Jennifer Simon, the director of American Indian services at Augsburg. Simon also grew up on Cheyenne River and knew LaPlante from afar. After hearing about Simon’s resources for Native American students at Augsburg, LaPlante signed up for classes that day.

Simon, whose job is to support and recruit Native American students, never expected to see someone from her own reservation at Augsburg. According to Simon, that’s because most families on Cheyenne River could never afford it. Even when Native American students do make it to a place like Augsburg, the hurdles are still high.

“Academics is the least rigorous thing of a Native college student’s experience,” Simon said.

Simon says Native American students in higher education experience racial bias, discrimination and usually lack a support system to help them, aside from one diversity officer assigned to all students of color at most institutions. At Augsburg, she is that support person for Native American students alone. Simon knows her job is especially important for Native American students who have been raised to fear the education system, tracing back to boarding schools. In the late 1800s, a church- and government-funded initiative forced Native American parents to send their children to boarding schools, which required them to cut their hair, speak English and forgo cultural traditions.

“Education was made historically to assimilate us,” Simon said.

Native American students who come from poor reservations can typically only afford college education through state grants and American Indian scholarships. The Minnesota Office of Higher Education provides the Minnesota Indian Scholarship, which is available to students who are at least one-fourth American Indian, Minnesota residents and demonstrate financial need. The grant gives up to $4,000 a year to undergraduate students. At Augsburg, that amounts to about 11 percent of the $36,950 yearly tuition.

Jessica Gourneau, the clinical director at the American Indian Family Center in St. Paul and Gourneau’s cousin, holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of North Dakota. Jessica was able to get her degrees because of the strong recruitment from Indian Health Services at Turtle Mountain Community High School. According to Jessica, many colleagues and professionals who aren’t Native believe all Native Americans receive free college education.

“When you try to open up these conversations, usually Natives are met with outright hostility,” Jessica said. “There is a high level of racism, particularly in Minnesota … it’s OK to be Native as long as you’re poor. It is not OK to have anything.”

Jessica believes the true value of higher education comes from critical thinking, not the path to a career, but most college students attend seeking the latter. She sees hope in students like Gourneau.

“Not everyone needs to go to college, but everyone should have the opportunity,” Jessica said. “It’s not as valuable as we make it out to be.”

LaPlante could afford Augsburg because he qualified for the Minnesota state grant by the time he attended.

The hurdles LaPlante crossed when he got to Augsburg were far beyond financial. At first, he struggled to write papers and even quit classes for a year. It wasn’t until he read a textbook in a Native American education course that he realized the Native American style of learning was different.

“All I’ve wanted my whole life was to be noticed as a Native person,” LaPlante said.

But aside from job opportunities, LaPlante isn’t sure higher education is worth it. For LaPlante, the education college provided him came from peers and connections, not academics, such as his involvement in the Augsburg Indigenous Student Association.

LaPlante graduated in 2017 with a degree in American Indian studies and hopes to use his degree to change the way people see indigenous history on things like maps and monuments. He has a five-month internship at the Minnesota History Center doing just that for the National Register of Historic Places.

Gourneau traveled back to Turtle Mountain on May 28 to give the graduation speech at the reservation high school, which she says is where she sees the most impact of her journey to Harvard. Young students have reached out to her and told her that her story has made them realize their dreams are possible.

“(Higher education has taught me) I have a future that I can build and I have a say in that,” Gourneau said. “I can build something for my future and my people.”