Dear Native College Student,
You are loved. You are loved so deeply and immensely that there are not words to convey the power of that love. Before I say any more, I want you to know that. Your ancestors love you. Your family loves you. Your friends, roommates, classmates love you. Your professors love you. Your RA loves you. The student support staff and administrators love you. We love you. And we need you. We need you here, we need you to fight, and survive and thrive. But above all else, please, please know that you are loved.
Last week, a Native student at my alma mater took his own life. When I heard the news, I was standing on top of a cliff in Hawaii overlooking the Pacific Ocean, looking out into the endless shades of blue, breathing deep and full for the first time in a long time. When I looked at my phone, I felt the familiar weight come back. The elephant that sits on my chest of worry, of fear, of concern. I silently held my friend’s arm and blinked back tears, saving them for later, when I was alone and didn’t have to express the complexity of the feelings I was holding inside.
I didn’t know this student personally. I didn’t know his joy, his love, his pain, or his fear—but I know the campus community he was a part of and that he has left behind. I know how broken they feel, how devastated, and how empty. I know because we felt it, the exact same feelings, seven years ago when our classmate, friend, and little brother took his life. When I got that text message on the cliff, all of those emotions came rushing back, experiencing the loss all over again.
I know, for you as a Native student, things are not easy. I know that it may feel like there are very few people on campus who understand you, understand where you come from, and the pressures you face above and beyond other students of color. Sometimes your fellow non-Native students don’t and can’t understand what it means to be you.
These are the things that keep me up at night. I worry endlessly about the personal costs of pushing you to college. In my research I focus on college access and transition for Native students. I talk about re-framing western education from a tool of colonialism to a tool of self-determination and liberation. I talk about nation building, and your responsibilities as a tribal citizen. I share stories of goodness and success, to show you, your communities, and colleges that you can do it—because you can. But I worry constantly about the pressures, and the costs to you. I worry that we’re selling you a false bill of goods.
The students in my dissertation talked to me about the sacrifices they make in order to “give back” with their college degrees. One of my pre-med students schedules her days so tightly she has to include her times to sleep and eat, or she won’t. Another gets up every morning at 5am so he can greet the sun and pray, offering his corn pollen on the edge of his dorm next to a dumpster so he can face his sacred mountain. I think about my Native friends, and how many of us have struggled with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts while in college.
Because we are not just in college for ourselves. We are there for our communities, and our people, and there is an expectation that we will use our degree to help make change. The academic research shows that this desire to give back for Native students can be a powerful motivator to get us through, and is a form of resistance to these oppressive college institutions formed on ideals of colonialism and white supremacy. But this is an enormous pressure. Especially when the paths to giving back aren’t clear, and instead are paved with resistance from our own communities, accusations of “thinking we’re better” than those back home, and tribal governments who won’t even look at resumes from their young educated citizens. Our classmates don’t have to weigh these pressures daily.
I don’t want to fall on the clichéd idea that “it gets better”—because there will always be challenges. But it gets different. Some days I wake up and can barely get out of bed because I feel like I’m not strong enough to make it in the academic world. I’ve struggled with my own darkness, though I don’t think most would know, because the outside world thinks Dr. K has it all together. But other days I am so full of faith and hope and joy for the incredible things this life has brought, the vibrancy and stories I hear from our communities, the change I see coming, so close I can touch it. I think of my friends who have made it through college, the lives they are changing, the jobs and careers forever changed for the better simply because of their presence. Yes there is responsibility, but that responsibility brings such good for the world.
We lost our friend in his sophomore year. He had so much of his college career ahead of him. This student was a last-quarter senior. Ready to graduate. Times of transition are particularly hard, when the weight of responsibility can feel most acute.
But despite all this—we love you and we need you. We need your light, we need your story, we need your words, your love, and your strength. We need you here.
Asking for help is one of the hardest things to do. I know. But please know that there are always people who care, even when it feels like you are alone. We as Native people still only make up less than 1% of college students nationally, but that is still thousands of students. Thousands of alumni who made it, who want to support you and who love you.
And I want to take a moment to talk beyond you—to your family, your professors, your community, your school administrators. We have a responsibility as well. It is not enough to push Native students to enroll in college, and expect them to conform to the norms and expectations of spaces not meant for them, and then forge their own path home. We need to embody the Cherokee concept of gadugi—working together toward a common goal that benefits the entire community. College can’t be the sole responsibility of our students. Colleges need to work to make environments supportive and degrees relevant to Indian Country. Families need to send unconditional love without expectation. Communities need, above all, to welcome our students back. We hold ceremonies, powwows, give aways, and honor songs for our veterans—but what about our students? They have been fighting a battle as well, and need the recognition and support. We need to welcome them back.
But back to you, brave, beautiful Native college student. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to fuck up. It’s ok to not know what the future holds. It’s ok if you need to take time off and come back. But it’s not ok to leave us here without you forever. The scars on our community were just beginning to heal seven years later—the innumerable lives changed forever with the loss of one. And now we must start again.
I also want you to take the time to tell your friends and fellow classmates that they matter and are important to you. We don’t do that often enough. Tell your friends how much they mean to you—thank them for the late nights of easy mac and laughter, for the study sessions, for the evenings of smoky frybread kitchens, and for listening. The only way to counter the invisibility we often feel is to truly see others, and let them see us. Because college isn’t just hard, it’s also amazing and fun and bright. There is often more laughter than tears, and the relationships that form are so important to hold onto.
To my beloved Stanford community, I send you all of my love. Let this time bring you together and share in healing. Our loss those years ago brought me closer to my Native friends than I ever had been, and we got through it by leaning hard on one another, and by lifting each other up. Remember to eat, remember to breathe, and remember that it’s ok to ask for help. The Stanford Native alums are here for you if you need us. I’m here if you need me. I’m so sorry that you’re having to experience this pain, and I’m so sorry that your friend and classmate is no longer here with us. Through the outpouring of support on Facebook I can see that he was special and deeply loved—as are all of you.
I know these words aren’t enough; I know that they’re rambling and too full of commas and clauses, but I hope they let at least one of you know that you are not alone, and that you are constantly on my mind.
I am going to ask in the comments for readers and friends to share their stories, their advice, and their support to show you that you are not alone. To show you that you are loved. I pray for you, and I know countless others do too.
You are loved. You are loved so deeply and immensely that there are not words to convey the power of that love. Before I end, I want you to know this, again. Your ancestors love you. Your family loves you. Your friends, roommates, classmates love you. Your professors love you. Your RA loves you. The student support staff and administrators love you. We love you. And we need you. We need you here, we need you to fight, and survive and thrive. But above all else, please, please know that you are loved.
With all my heart,
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255