Best & Brightest: The War Vet, Financial Aid Activist and Ivy League Student - Higher Education

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Best & Brightest: The War Vet, Financial Aid Activist and Ivy League Student

by Mary Annette Pember

For John Around Him, the idea of attending Dartmouth College was more than impossible. When Wick Sloane, his writing teacher at Bunker Hill Community College suggested he apply to the Ivy League school, Around Him thought he was making an outlandish joke.

“It only took us 10 months to convince him he should apply to Dartmouth,” says Sloane, an adjunct English professor and coordinator of publications at Bunker Hill, an urban and racially diverse community college in Boston.

Around Him is beginning his sophomore year this fall at Dartmouth. His road to the school was an extraordinary journey that took him from the Pine Ridge Reservation to Iraq to community college to Capitol Hill.

Around Him, 26, is a member of the Lakota tribe. He was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, S.D. where he graduated from Little Wound High School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs school on the reservation.

The idea of attending college was never discussed at Little Wound, recalls Around Him recalls.

“No one ever pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to go to college,” he says.

The only route to college seemed to be through the military so he enlisted in the Army, and he was scheduled to leave on Sept. 11, 2001. Having never traveled far from Pine Ridge, Around Him was anxious about leaving the reservation. He had packed his bags the night before and said goodbye to friends and family. 

The next day he remembers his sister Clovia excitedly calling him by his childhood nickname, John John.

“John John, you need to get up. We’re being attacked!” she shouted.

He stumbled into the living room just in time to see the TV broadcast of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center.

“It was all coming at me pretty fast. Does this mean I’m going to war tomorrow?” he wondered.

After basic training in Fort Knox, Ky., he flew to Iraq the following spring where he drove a tank for one year.

“It was the scariest time of my life. We were in the thick of things the entire time,” he says.

After the Army, he returned to Pine Ridge and an uncertain future. He fell in love with a young woman, Dina Wagner, who was teaching at Little Wound with plans of attending Harvard. He decided to follow her and began attending classes at Bunker Hill while working full time at a cake store.

Around Him was inspired by the atmosphere at Bunker Hill and the commitment of fellow students to get an education in the face of often overwhelming obstacles.

He took a writing class taught by Sloane, who emphasizes writing for survival to his students — many of whom come from low-income neighborhoods in Boston. 

As the semester advanced, the students in Sloane’s English 111 course began to form close ties and found they had a common concern: how to pay for college.

“It didn’t take them long to figure out that community college students get the short end of the stick in terms of financial aid,” Sloane says.

The students decided to focus on the final clause of the First Amendment, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances as a means to bring their situation to the attention of lawmakers. As part of the assignment, Around Him chose to write a letter to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asking why he (Around Him) a veteran and low-income Native American is excluded from much of the federal financial aid offered to others.

The day after e-mailing the letter, Around Him received a call from Sloane.

“Wick told me to get my classmates together. Sen. Kerry is visiting our class tomorrow,” Around Him recalls.

Around Him and his fellow students hurriedly arranged a space for the meeting, security and authored a proposal calling for expanded financial aid for low-income and minority students.  The students presented the proposal to Kerry’s staff.

Around Him was later offered an internship with Kerry. He worked in his Washington D.C. office for a semester. Empowered by this and his Bunker Hill experience, Around Him later began applying to Dartmouth College at the insistence of Sloane.

“John didn’t get the reception we had hoped for when he initially emailed Dartmouth on his own,” Sloane says. 

Sloane helped bring Around Him’s situation to the attention of Dartmouth President James Wright, a former U. S. Marine. Wright has worked extensively to expand educational opportunities for veterans and people of color.

Eventually Around Him was accepted at Dartmouth. He says the course work at Dartmouth is challenging.

“I had to read only one book during my entire high school career at Little Wound. Here at Dartmouth, I had to read 10 books in one term alone,” he says.

His passion for education is leading him toward a major in education and a minor in English.

 “My short-term goal is to return to Pine Ridge to teach; my long-term goal is to become an administrator at Little Wound High School,” he says.

Around Him thinks an unfortunate “pity factor” for Native American students influences reservation schools.

 “The mentality seems be that since the students have such hard lives, we shouldn’t expect much from them in school,” he says.

Around Him says this mentality is a recipe for failure for young Native Americans.

“I want to raise the bar for reservation students and increase the rigor of the course work,” he says.

His great hope is to change the state of affairs in Native American education for the better.

Andrew Garrod, professor and chair director of the Teacher Education Program at Dartmouth, serves as Around Him’s adviser. He says Around Him’ s life experience has made him an invaluable contributor to class discussions.

“I believe John is gaining a lot from being exposed to formal and rigorous standards in academia and he in turn is contributing enormously to the learning of others—both his teachers and fellow students,” Garrod says.

Text from Around Him’s  2007 letter

Dear Sen. Kerry,

          My name is John Around Him, and I am a student at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. I am Native American and a veteran of the war in Iraq.

I am sure you, a veteran of the Vietnam War, can relate to putting your life on the line; to live in an environment of gunfire, explosions, chaos and confusion, wondering if the next second might be your last. For most students, the idea of being shot at and delaying enrollment to earn money for college isn’t very appealing.

          But, for those students who do not qualify for federal financial aid, like me, it may be the only option and this is why I am writing to you. I believe the federal financial aid system is ineffective in helping students pay for college, especially low-income and minority students.

          I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and graduated from Little Wound High School in 2001. I was an average student, maintaining a grade point average just below 3.0. I always thought about going to college. However, there is one question that most students, including myself, often ask themselves — how do I pay for college? I lived with my father (a single parent) and with two other families. He would also often take care of other relatives coming from broken homes. My father was a language teacher, respectable, but not the wealthiest career, so family support was out of the question.

Certainly, there is money and programs out there to help students pay for college, but which students? According to the formulas used in the federal financial aid system, my father made too much money; therefore, I did not qualify for financial aid. This is the case for a lot more students like myself.

          Students either have to be dirt poor to get federal financial aid or in the top 10 [percent] academically to receive scholarships these days. What about the students in the middle who worked hard and did their best (which by popular belief is the path towards success), but fail to enter or stay in college because of the tuition blockade?

          Today, the average tuition cost (including room and board), according to the report “Trends in College Pricing 2006” by the College Board, for public universities is $12,796. In contrast to the average tuition cost in 2000, we have seen an increase of $4,357. It is evident that colleges are raising tuition, due mostly in part by the lack of state funding. Furthermore, although increases have been made, federal financial aid has not kept up with the rising cost of tuition. But, the increase in tuition isn’t the only thing students have to worry about.

          The formulas and standards used to determine a student’s financial need are unrealistic to the average student or family. For example, according to the federal financial aid system, to be considered independent (which greatly determines if you receive financial aid) you must meet one of the following: 24 years of age or older; married; a veteran; or orphans or wards of the court. However, today, most students are financially independent after high school. A 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that independent students make up 64 percent of the students at community colleges and 37 percent at four-year public colleges. About three in five of those students worked at least 35 hours a week.

          Independent students must often cut working hours to attend class, or take classes part-time to work full-time. Both of which can be extremely stressful and discouraging.

As Mark Twain once said, the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning is a really large matter. I am not saying students should not join the military. Would I have joined the military had I received financial aid? Perhaps, perhaps not. I for one support our troops and enjoyed my time in the service. The values, discipline and experience contributed to who I am today and I am thankful for that.

          However, going to war is expensive and ugly. Was going to war necessary? I don’t know. But I do know this: to take care of those around us, we must first take care of ourselves.

          I am writing to you not only on my behalf, but for the well-being of my country and my family. The federal financial aid system is deleting a majority of those students in need of financial aid. With state budget cuts, tuition continues to rise and the climb towards success is getting steeper. For some students seeking higher education, the financial aid options are slim. I feel as though these problems are often overlooked.

          As a result, like a cancerous disease, problems like these will continue to grow to the point of no return, and we will watch — a dying nation.)



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