She’s been dreaming of studying law since the age of 7 and devouring books since second grade, Taylor Payer has always loved learning.
“My biggest problem in school was wanting more out of my education. Going to school on the reservation there were limited resources and opportunity for higher-level learning,” she says of life on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. “In high school I felt alienated from my peers. For them it was Jersey Shore and prom, for me it was books and arguing with my teachers about politics and Shakespeare. I wanted a challenge, that’s what made me most excited about the idea of going to college, being challenged and intellectually-stimulated in the classroom.”
But she couldn’t have gotten where she is today without the help of scholarships.
“At the beginning of my junior year in high school I began searching for scholarships for hours at a time. I would Google until my fingers hurt. I knew the only way I was going to be able to go to school was with a full scholarship,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network. But she mostly found smaller scholarships for $1,000 or $2,000, which wouldn’t have put much of a dent in the price tag on the schools she was interested in, many in the $60,000 a year range.
Then she found and applied for the QuestBridge College Prep Scholarship, which was a summer program that teaches low-income high school juniors how to compete for admission to top colleges.
Eventually, through QuestBridge she was accepted to Dartmouth on a full scholarship. She even spent this past summer interning at the QuestBridge office in Palo Alto, California. She worked to increase Native American recruitment in the program.
“This is something I am completely committed to and passionate about because I want low-income Native students to have the same opportunities I have been fortunate to have,” she told ICTMN. “College and education is essential to the well-being of Indian country.”
Payer is scheduled to graduate in 2015 and plans on serving in the Peace Corps or Teach For America for two years before studying Indian law.
“I want to work somewhere in Indian country and focus on cases of sexual assault committed against Natives. One in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime; the statistics are haunting,” she told ICTMN. “After years of thinking I was pre-med and being super indecisive I have found something I want to commit my life to, fighting against the oppression and violence many Native Americans face.”
And the fight is one she struggled with herself.
“As a survivor of sexual assault, I am personally familiar with the injustice and problematic ‘grey areas’ between tribal sovereignty/jurisdiction and federal jurisdiction, especially in the case of non-Native assault against a Native.”
Law school isn’t the only thing on her agenda though. She also wants to earn a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in ethnic studies.
“I would love to be a scholar of Indian law and queer indigenous studies,” she told ICTMN.
She advises other Native students to “fall in love with hard work,” the same advice her father always gave her.
She spoke highly of her father, who is an ambulance driver and janitor for the Indian Health Service.
“He has the greatest work ethic and encourages me to work and do my very best at every aspect of my life—now that’s some great advice. Give everything you have to your education, your relationships, your personal well-being, and loved ones. People will doubt you and try to hold you back, keep going. Opportunities don’t always come knocking on the door for Native students. Find them. Make things happen.”