For Rachel King and Native American Youths, higher education is the surest route to the future.
by Linda Shapiro
Alumna Rachel King may have put an advanced degree in audiology on hold for now, but she still spends most of her days figuring out how to make voices be heard.
An Ojibwe from the Red Lake Nation, King finished her undergraduate education determined to open up similar opportunities to Native American youths. She eventually became a senior admissions counselor and student of color recruitment coordinator in the U’s Office of Admissions, where she helps students prepare for higher education and match their areas of interest with an appropriate higher education institution. She starts by listening while Native American middle and high school students talk about their hopes and dreams for the future. Those hopes and dreams are familiar—not so different from hers at that age.
In her role as counselor, King is a knowledge ambassador, doorkeeper, and escort into the future. She’s also a kind of voice coach, giving young Native Americans a say in that future. "I’m very proud to be American Indian and aware of my obligation as a college graduate to bring knowledge back to Native American communities. These students need to know that they are the future," says King. That’s an important message to a group that is so underrepresented in higher education. The Department of American Indian Studies at Minnesota may be the oldest of its kind in the nation, says King, but American Indians made up only 0.8 percent of University graduates in 2005–06.
To improve that figure, King works with students in greater Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin and also recruits nationally for the University. She helps young people understand that college is a real possibility and helps them overcome their doubts and fears. "Since many of the Native American students come from rural areas and are first-generation students, I talk about how to fit into a larger community and make it a smaller community," King says.
"We start with college prep really early on, at about sixthgrade," adds King, who has adopted a middle school in Red Lake where she goes twice a year to counsel students. "We talk about college as an option while we’re looking at career choices. Say somebody wants to be a firefighter; we talk about what you need education-wise for that. Or a singer—we talk about how you not only need to train hard vocally, you also need to learn the history of music."
While she talks to students about a range of choices, from tribal and community colleges to private and state universities, she is eager to see more Native American students at the University. She herself chose the University because she knew that she wanted a range of opportunities to explore— both socially and intellectually. "I had always gone to Indian schools. I looked forward to being part of a more diverse population. That was a seller for me," she says.
King chose SLHS because she found the field fascinating. She originally wanted to become a speech pathologist, moved by the high incidence of cleft palate in the Native community. Then she became interested in audiology, recognizing a need for Native professionals in that field as well. When she eventually gets her clinical doctorate in the field, she plans to continue to work within the Native American community.
King talks with enthusiasm about her experiences in the department, where she especially appreciated the accessibility of professors. She fully supported the successful nomination of one such professor, Ben Munson, for the CLA Student Board’s Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year in 2002. "Everyone in the department was so willing to help," says King. "My positive experience there helps me talk to prospective students here in admissions."
King’s can-do spirit and multicultural perspectives translate readily into a job that allows her to go back into her community and push for higher education.