On the Fort Peck Reservation by Secret Crushong

March 22, 2023
Secret is an AmeriCorps College Coach serving at Poplar High School.

My first task as an AmeriCorps College Coach on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation was to get to know the students I would serve throughout my time at Poplar High School. To achieve this, I surveyed the junior and senior classes’ interests, skills, and experiences. Using the information collected from these surveys, I could search for specific educational and vocational opportunities that best match our students, and introduce each student individually to the limitless possibilities of approaching their post-secondary goals. This approach includes familiarizing prospective college students with a variety of resources to help them navigate the challenges of accessing post-secondary education. For example, the high school is located near Fort Peck Community College, where I can connect students with FAFSA experts and other resources. However, the students in Poplar face challenges that many students elsewhere in the United States do not encounter and that I had never faced before.

In the first week of my service, it became evident that these students are at an absolute academic disadvantage. Our students inevitably become disillusioned and disconnected in a community where resources are limited, and systems are broken. During my first few months at Poplar High School, I was disappointed when I realized how common it is to drop out, and I was shocked by how most students I interacted with were so reluctant to respond to any of the efforts made to get to know them. It was as if the students were unavailable. They could not see or hear me. They were looking right through me.

Furthermore, I was astonished when students told me they do not learn Native American history. Without getting into the details of the last two and a half centuries of trauma imposed on Native Americans by the United States, I must emphasize how critical it is to recognize its impact on Native American communities today. Generational trauma can destroy families, cultures, and identities; for instance, some students have older family members who personally experienced the boarding school system, which forcibly removed Native children from their families on the pretense of providing education. Because of these adversities, many of our students come from broken homes. They are affected by all kinds of tragic circumstances, which manifest in emotional and psychological disorders, substance abuse, domestic violence, and so much more. Undoubtedly, one thing is sure: adversity directly affects a student’s ability to obtain a quality education.

In Poplar, this adversity is compounded by challenges common to many rural areas, such as a lack of proper resources. Rural challenges include the inability to hire the necessary professional personnel, like lunchroom staff and school bus drivers. The biggest shock was learning that our school does not have a guidance counselor or any professional resources to address behavioral health concerns.

Just when I believed this fact to be the most unfortunate, I learned about a decade-old tribal policy that allows law enforcement to put tribal members experiencing a mental health crisis in jail or juvenile detention (Billings Gazette, 2021). I will never forget the day I witnessed one of our students leave school in handcuffs and be transported to a juvenile detention facility only because their community has no alternatives for handling mental health emergencies. When considering the consequences of asking for help, it is obvious why students are reluctant to do so. All these factors are overwhelming for our students and make school unbelievably difficult.

Witnessing the circumstances in Poplar has changed my perspective on educational equity and community service. While I can do little as an AmeriCorps College Coach to address trauma or the challenges of rural life, I can still do my part in helping students recognize their potential, ultimately encouraging themes of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and personal responsibility.

Frequently we hear from students that many believe they are not smart enough to attend college. As a College Coach, I challenge this belief and encourage students to apply for college, especially if they lack confidence. I insist that the students are worth it and that completing the college application process is well worth their time. When students receive acceptance letters, many of them display an increased sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. Experiencing these emotions reminds the students they have the capacity to achieve great things. The students learn to recognize their ability to take control of their futures, and that their initiative makes them stand out among their peers. The most rewarding aspect of my service is witnessing students getting excited about their futures, even as they face multiple challenges head-on.