Growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Caine Ghost Bear spent hours every day with his great-grandmother. After losing his father at just 3 years old, she became a major force in Caine’s life, cooking for him and sharing stories about how much she had loved being a nurse. When she passed away during Caine’s sophomore year of high school, he says it nearly “ended his world.” But her spirit inspired Caine to study hard, to remain connected to Lakota culture and language, and to avoid the temptation of drugs and alcohol.
All of that hard work and perseverance paid off. Caine, along with four of his fellow seniors at Red Cloud High School, learned they would receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship—one of the most competitive scholarship programs in the country. Initially funded by a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the program provides a good-through-graduation scholarship to 1,000 minority students to attend the college of their choice without incurring financial debt.
For Caine and other students from Pine Ridge, where the annual per capita income is $7,887 and only 12 percent of the population has earned a college degree, becoming a Gates scholar is truly the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I honestly never thought this would happen to me. It’s a huge blessing from T?u?kášila,” said Caine. “I know my dad is watching over me right now, and so is my great-grandma. They helped me to be strong, and now I know anything is possible with hard work and determination.” (T?u?kášila is a Lakota word meaning Creator or God). With his Gates scholarship, Caine plans to follow in his great-grandmother’s footsteps and pursue a degree in nursing.
Caine and his classmates worked for an entire semester on the Gates application, which includes eight personal essays. To earn the scholarship, applicants must maintain a GPA of 3.3 or higher and demonstrate a commitment to academic excellence, leadership and community service.
Red Cloud High School’s Principal Robin Johnson says the Gates scholarship is becoming more and more competitive with each passing year. In this round, over 56,000 students across the country applied, and only 1,000 were selected.
“To have five of our students earn the Gates is such a remarkable accomplishment, and we’re all so proud of their hard work,” Johnson said. “Each of them has persevered through some tremendous challenges in their young lives, but they’ve remained committed to education and to working toward their dreams. And with the support of the Gates, now they have every opportunity to achieve them.”
In addition to Caine, Red Cloud seniors Kristian Big Crow ‘14, Ryan Hussman ‘14, Genriel Ribitsch ’14 and Colton Sierra ’14 will be heading to college next year with the support of a Gates scholarship behind them. All five students are still absorbing the happy news while busily planning for their futures.
Eighteen-year old Ryan Hussman, who is considering attending the University of Colorado, has dreams of studying business and becoming a business owner on the Pine Ridge Reservation in order to expand economic opportunity here.
“I want to…come back and open a few businesses around the reservation, which is in dire need of new businesses. I have a lot of ideas,” said Ryan. “It’s a great accomplishment, to actually get a scholarship that is nationally recognized. For me, being one of the five from the reservation, it makes me feel I did accomplish a lot in my four years… all my hard work paid off.”
Nineteen-year old Kristian Big Crow had planned to join the Army to earn money for college. But now he says earning the Gates has opened other doors and possibilities for him.
“When I reflect on it, I find myself really grateful,” Kristian said.
To date, 64 Red Cloud Indian School students have earned the Gates scholarship—the highest number of any school of its size in the country. Each year the nonprofit, Jesuit institution works to provide 600 Lakota students with a high-quality, innovative education, from kindergarten through high school. Despite the many challenges facing youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation, from extreme poverty to high rates of depression and suicide, over 95 percent of Red Cloud graduates pursue higher education or post-secondary training.
According to Principal Johnson, those positive results stem from a combination of rigorous academics, a supportive, caring environment and programs that honor Lakota culture and identity.
“Coursework is important, but so is providing our students with a holistic education that supports their minds and their spirits,” Johnson said. “When given those resources, they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.”