We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s fifth annual Student Writing Contest.
This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Amanda Lewan of Michigan State University and Melissa Parnagian of Old Bridge High School in New Jersey. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive
Nation subscriptions. Many thanks to the IF Stone Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute for its generosity in making this contest possible. The Editors

For an American Indian woman, a college degree was to remain merely a dream.

You see, where I come from one could safely assume that the boys would either become alcoholics or end up in jail, while the girls would either become college dropouts or single mothers.

My home is on the Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian reservation in the United States, where poverty is prevalent as a result of colonization, the historical banning of spiritual and healing ceremonies, the relocation or removal from ancestral homelands and, ultimately, treaties broken by the federal government.

Despite the social issues, the constant struggle of overcoming has taught me the meaning of humility and hard work. My grandmother and I lived in the isolated mountain summits in a house made of logs and mud that lacked basic plumbing and electricity. Herding sheep, weaving rugs, telling stories and speaking Navajo was the essence of my upbringing.

Grandma refused to go to a school of Western thought, refused to speak and learn English and could not read or write, making education at the time unthinkable and impossible. This however, did not slay my curiosity about the life around me, nor my love for learning.

While the rest of the country celebrated the newest invention, stock market profit and another million dollars added to their bank accounts, ignorant of the outside world, I found pleasure and entertainment in simple doings such as the making of a homemade slingshot, which I hunted prairie dogs with. When I wasn’t playing, I was walking pails of water to the cabin or sitting under a ramada listening to grandma tell the history of my people and clan.

Inevitably, I was forced into formal schooling. First, I attended a boarding school, much like one that had scarred many of my ancestors after being forced thousands of miles away from home and into a system that devalued their personhood, language, ceremonies and "Indian-ness." Then it was public schooling—schools that were already underachieving, underfunded and filled with unqualified teachers.

Years later, I find myself a college graduate reflecting on my journey and asking myself one question: how did I do it? To answer this question, I think of one saying: "It takes a village to raise a child"—this is a common belief in American Indian tribes.

My village is my family, my mentors who have become lifelong friends, my professors, programs that helped my transition from reservation to city life, the cultural center that I called home when I was away from home, and the gatherings that allowed me freely express and be proud of my indigenous heritage.

Tuition hikes and budget cuts threaten the village that has helped this insecure, American Indian woman beat the odds, despite having all odds against her—odds that many American Indians, women and minorities face, struggle through and sometimes are defeated by, when seeking degrees from higher education institutions.

All my life, the price to attend school was expensive—I either had to replace a traditional teaching with a Western teaching, or I had to give up money I did not have to pay for classes. I have seen many of my mentors and professors lose their jobs despite their passion to help students like me succeed. I have seen programs slashed—the ones that focused on retaining minority students with a mission of turning out responsible and quality students into a society that is in dire need of positive change and a diverse perspective, skills they wouldn’t have otherwise learned. Further, I have seen our cultural centers threatened with removal because there is simply not enough money—our home away from home, the one place we can truly express our pride and identity, the one place we draw strength from so that we can one day go back to our poverty-stricken communities and show the future generations that to obtain a college degree is possible.

Though unsure of and intimidated by everything and everyone around me, I became the first in my family to graduate with a university degree. This is only one story of how services and people have made a positive impact on my educational journey—a journey, mind you, that society said I was not supposed to have, simply because I was of a lower socioeconomic status, I came from a family with who knew very little of college, and because I am a minority of the minority.

I only hope that future generations of American Indians, women and minorities exhaust what little resources are available or that they have an upbringing that teaches them the resilience, hard work and humility needed to graduate from college, because I was a lucky one, to have maintained my cultural heritage and still earn a degree.