Catching the Dream
LaVonne Chenault-Goslin, a member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Indians from Kansas, has been working towards a doctorate degree in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota at Duluth for the past seven years. She is also raising two teenagers, working as a college professor at her local tribal college, running the Red Cliff Head Start program, and managing a family life. Her Indian name is Kaw-e-quah, which aptly means, “fish that wiggles upstream.” Previously only able to enroll in courses part-time, her scholarship from Catching the Dream has enabled her to attend classes full-time—bringing her goal of educating teachers on how to best provide for and impact Indian students ever-closer.
Catching the Dream (CTD) was founded in 1986 by Dean Chavers and American Indian leaders Wendell Chino, Roger Jourdain, Newton Lamar, and Joe Delacruz to provide outstanding students like LaVonne with scholarships and opportunities for success they might not otherwise receive. Since their founding, CTD has made scholarship awards to 1,123 students and has produced 835 graduates. Boasting a 78.6% completion rate among their students, they provide Native students with exemplary academic skills and ambition with the chance to attend college and give back to their communities.
A Dire Situation
A staggering 27 % of all Native Americans  live in poverty while their communities suffer from soaring unemployment rates, rampant crime, substance abuse problems, and a nearly broken education system. As of the 2009-2010 school year, only about 58% of Native American students graduated from high school. In order to improve the quality of life in Indian communities, Chavers and his fellow founders turned to higher education: “We decided, if we’re going to rebuild Indian country and try to heal it, we’ve got to have some educated leadership.” CTD has made it their mission to develop leaders whose education properly equips them to improve Indian country’s local economies, governments, education programs, health clinics, and social systems.
CTD rewards students who have demonstrated a strong interest in giving back to their Native communities through social service, volunteering and academics. They offer supplementary scholarship funding and require that students apply to at least 40 other scholarships. They also fund SAT and ACT tests and offer advice to students on finding, applying for, and winning other scholarships. In this manner, CTD encourages students to be self-sustaining and develop skills in self-promotion, research, and resourcefulness. In order to maintain their scholarships with CTD, students must maintain a 3.0 grade point average and submit each semester’s transcripts and class schedule.
This past year, their partnership with the Argosy Foundation has enabled them to fund 24 students, bringing their total number of scholarships awarded to 186 with 64 graduates. Currently, about 85% of CTD’s graduates return to their local communities to work as nurses, engineers, accountants, business managers, entrepreneurs, pharmacists, and scientists. Their graduates have a variety of degrees including 116 with business degrees, 28 engineers, 123 teachers, 115 scientists, 38 doctors, and 110 scientists. Chavers feels that having American Indians in these positions within the communities in which they grew up is instrumental to alleviating the challenges that threaten to stifle Indian country. CTD has seen the majority of their students graduate, spend time gaining experience in the field, and then return to their communities. Since they have grown up within these communities, they are well equipped to maneuver the unique challenges of American Indian society and incorporate culturally appropriate practices into their positions.
Two years into their operations, CTD encountered a serious problem: they were unable to find enough qualified students to apply for their scholarships. Chavers recalls, “the board members realized that in order to reach the goals CTD wanted to accomplish, we had to do something to improve the schools.” In order to raise education standards as well as recognize successful programs, CTD began distributing Exemplary Program in Indian Education (EPIE) awards. Currently boasting 40 EPIEs, CTD recently added the Menominee Indian School District (MISD) in Wisconsin to the list of exceptional schools. Wendall Waukau, the district’s Superintendent, has spent the past eight years working to strengthen the schools’ academics as well as cultivating cultural appreciation and language skills, promoting physical health and activity, and offering on-site health care. As a result, MISD has seen dramatic gains in their test scores, student learning, graduation rates, student attendance and retention, and overall student behavior. They have received numerous awards from the state of Wisconsin and Waukau has been recognized by the White House as a “Champion of Change” . CTD hopes to see many more American Indian schools follow in MISD and the other EPIEs’ footsteps by strengthening their curriculum and cultural environment to better serve the community and create the leaders it needs.
A Bright Future
Through the Argosy Foundation’s grant, CTD has been able to fund students concentrating specifically in the fields of math, engineering, science, business, education, and computers. Julian Benavides, from Isleta Pueblo, completed his undergrad college career with a GPA of 4.0, graduated fourth out of 435 students from his high school, and scored in the 96th percentile in his ACTs. When he graduates from the University of New Mexico Medical School, he will be the only known graduate with a medical degree from his pueblo. The partnership between Argosy and Catching the Dream has enabled students like Julian to attend college, get their degrees, and become the leaders that Dean Chavers and CTD envision for the future of the Native American community.