Gaming industry leaders first met college scholarship recipient Shannon Alden-Wilson at NIGA’s Indian Gaming 2010 trade show in San Diego. Alden-Wilson bravely stood in a room full of NIGA Associate Members and told her story. Explaining how hopeful receiving a scholarship made her feel brought the young woman as well as audience members to tears. She told the crowd, “This scholarship not only enabled me to afford my college education; it released a huge burden of stress that I didn’t even realize I was carrying.” While receiving compliments after her presentation, Alden-Wilson said that she couldn’t even remember what she said at the podium because she was so nervous and overwhelmed with gratitude.
Sometimes we forget how powerful it is to invest in another person. It is life-changing to receive that type of support, especially when it creates an opportunity to receive an otherwise unattainable education. Alden-Wilson explained: “I have also viewed this scholarship as a sign that I am headed in the right direction with my career goal. I feel that with hard work and determination, I can achieve my goal of becoming a pharmacist, return home to work in my community and pay it forward.”
Shannon received $2,000 each semester for the 2009-2010 school year through NIGA’s Spirit of Sovereignty Scholarship. She recently finished her second semester as a full-time student at Little Bighorn College in Crow Agency, Mont.
Alden-Wilson was committed to going back to school to become a pharmacist even before receiving the scholarship. But with two children (ages 12 and 9) and financial commitments, she found herself overwhelmed. Alden-Wilson said, “I enrolled in classes full time and made arrangements for work study at the college. I figured my budget for the semester and estimated the monthly payments I could afford.”
Everything changed when Alden-Wilson was told she was her college’s recipient of the NIGA scholarship. She smiled, recalling, “I floated on cloud nine for at least a week. I called my family, friends and co-workers. I told everyone I spoke to, I was so elated.” Because of the scholarship, Alden-Wilson was able to drop her work study and reduce other work hours to free up time for an internship at a pharmacy. She now works six days a week, attends classes full time and puts in 10-15 hours a week at her internship.
Alden-Wilson’s story is just one example of why NIGA places such importance on funding education. Each year, the NIGA Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation gives out 36 scholarships, totaling about $150,000 to students at tribal colleges. The money comes from tribes and other NIGA members. NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. explained the commitment Indian gaming has to education: “Remember, nobody is getting rich off our industry. Our wealth is reflected in the benefits provided to our community members. Tribal government gaming is providing excellent resources for our community members. Health, education, welfare and adequate living conditions are key components that are reflected in the benefits of Indian gaming.”
It isn’t just the direct dollars donated to education that benefit Native American colleges and students. American Indian College Fund’s President Rick Williams says the partnership Indian gaming creates between corporations and tribes is also extremely beneficial. He explained: “It’s important because when you start looking at partnerships across the country and you are trying to ally yourself or seek a contractual relationship with one of the gaming tribes, I think it is critical that you can demonstrate that you already made a commitment to Indian communities. Donating to education is the best way to demonstrate that you are truly going to be a good partner in all aspects of the business.”
These partnerships are creating opportunities in Native American education. Each year, the fund distributes scholarships to more than 6,000 students at tribal and non-tribal colleges, totaling about $4 million. The money comes from tribes, corporations, foundations and individual people. The fund’s website says 91 percent of its scholarship recipients are non-traditional students. Many of these students have children, are older than 24 and work full time. The fund also contributes money directly to colleges for capital support and cultural preservation activities.
Williams said as funding for tribal colleges and education increases, so does the number of students going to tribal colleges. Tribal colleges put more focus on the concepts of culture, language and Native American history than public or other private colleges. He explained it is important to understand the impact of tribal colleges. “Education was not always looked upon as being an advantage or admirable in our communities,” he said. “With the advent of tribal colleges, they really changed the history of Indian education in America. They changed it from a system that was foreign and alienating to Indian people to one that is owned by Indian people and empowers our people in an educational system that was built for them.”
Williams said that over the past 20 years, the number of Native students enrolling in college has doubled. Little Bighorn College experienced a 43 percent increase in enrollment this school year. Alden-Wilson plans to stay there for the two more semesters and then apply to the University of Montana for four more years to complete her education. She’s happy to say, “I feel that I have found my purpose and that I am working toward my aspiration in life.”
Thousands of Native students are entering the work force this summer, ready to utilize their education and professional growth to begin their careers and assist their communities.
Stevens Jr. said graduation season is a special time: “As we end the school year and take part in so many awesome graduation experiences, it adds to the excitement of summer being upon us. While we enjoy graduations and picnics and the excitement of summer, we don’t have a lot of time to rest because there’s a lot of work to do in the summer, and fall comes fast. Whether we are applying our education to a professional field, or preparing for our next tier of education, our responsibility is still the same. To education and our young leadership, we are making Indian country a better place.”