On June 15, 2013 Eastern Washington University presented me with an Honorary Doctorate. Yes, we all know that honorary degrees aren’t the same as real ones. I didn’t spend years in a PHD program or sweat over a dissertation. Yet when the honor came … I felt an immense relief, as if someone had just pulled a sliver from the bottom of my foot. I could finally stand upright. You see, decades ago I had dropped out of a graduate program and it had always haunted me, no matter how successful I became in my career as a network news correspondent. In the 1970’s, I was a young married mom of two attending the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota. My then husband and I had married as teenagers. Young and foolish, we made many mistakes and when the marriage ended, I thought, “I can’t stay in school. I need to get a job to support these kids.” Recalling those days, I can’t help but applaud the many Native college students who today juggle parenting and term papers. Thirty-?four tribal colleges serve more than 30,000 students and according to a recent study, 92% of scholarship recipients in tribal colleges are considered “non-?traditional”… meaning they are older than the typical American college student, they have dependents and most of the time they are female. In other words, they sound just like I was back then: a mom with kids to support. I take my hat off to you students!
(My tasseled hat, which came with the honorary degree.) Your determination will make a straighter path for your children. I know that to be absolutely true. Because, abbreviated though it was, the journalism program gave me the skills that made me a reporter; and from there, an anchorwoman; and from there, a network news correspondent. They were all building blocks. Standing on the podium at Eastern Washington University, I felt the blocks had finally come full circle. There I was at a college commencement, receiving a degree in honor of my life work and at last I was able to exhale that old regret about leaving grad school early. It was okay. The sliver pulled out, I stood tall and said, “Thank you.”
NOTE: A member of the Nez Perce Tribe, Hattie Kauffman is the first Native American to ever report on a national network broadcast. Her memoir, Falling Into Place, is being released in September.