I am Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation, but I grew up in the small town of Wilmot, SD just outside of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation. Before graduating from Tiospa Zina Tribal School in 2009, I was a small town girl with big dreams of going far away to a big city for college. However, when it actually came down to choosing a college, I found out that Minnesota State University Moorhead was only 100 miles away from home and had a nationally recognized Graphic Design department. The community here is big enough to feel like I’m far from home, yet small enough so it wasn’t a huge change.

I had no other choice in my mind besides going to college. What else was I going to do after graduating high school? I knew that I couldn’t get a job that I actually wanted with just a high school diploma. I was also just a kid; I didn’t even want to work. After being in high school for twelve years, all I knew how to do was learn. It probably helps that I really enjoy learning. It also helped knowing that I wasn’t going to be going through high school again, and that college was going to be a different. College is a choice.

Before going to college I chose Graphic Communications because it came almost natural to me. I taught myself how to use Photoshop when I was in high school and it grew from there. I love color, photography and design. These were all options in the Graphic Communication field. It’s fascinating figuring out how to represent a person, place, or product using graphics. I’m in love with the challenge.

Although I knew college was going to be a little scary, I reminded myself that every other freshman was in the same boat as me. No one has a clue about what is going on. Since no one knew me, I was free to be whoever I wanted to be.

Going through the university experience in itself constantly reminds me that I’m alive. So many doors are open to me simply because of school. I’ve had the opportunities to study abroad for five months in Turkey, work at a mission in Guatemala, take a spring break trip to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, participate in the Washington Internships for Native Students (WINS) program, intern for the US Agency for International Development, work on campus for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and be the President of the American Indian Student Association. All of these experiences and more happened because I am in college.

Senior year has been different than the past few years. The classes I’m taking are all classes in my major and everything just feels different. It has finally hit me that I am going to be in the “real world”. I wish I could stay in school forever! At first I was a little stressed out thinking about what I was going to do after graduation, but then I realized: I am going to have so much time to just do stuff I want to do. I can’t wait!

I cannot stress enough how much college has helped shape who I am today. Many life skills have been learned throughout my years in school such as the continuous challenges of interesting classes, meeting new people, and learning to manage my time. I challenge our youth to take a step forward once they receive their high school diploma or GED. My biggest accomplishment was learning to put myself first. This is a very hard thing for our people to do. We come from a very family- and community-oriented culture and making yourself number one feels selfish, but it’s not. Obstacles are constantly thrown onto our paths causing us to fall; many times we don’t even realize that these obstacles aren’t ours. Sometimes they belong to family or friends, yet we feel obligated to fix things. When you’re on a plane they tell you to assist yourself before assisting others. Do what is best for you. Maybe that’s college, maybe not. But when you allow your heart to follow its dreams, amazing things happen. Do you!

This story was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Native Max Magazine.