Tribal College Tour Inspires Walmart Partner
February 28, 2011
Ronnette Smith is the Senior Manager, Corporate Affairs – Constituent Relations for Walmart, a corporate supporter for the American Indian College Fund (the Fund). As part of her duties, Ms. Smith had the chance three years ago to attend a tribal college tour of Montana with the Fund, visiting two tribal colleges there to learn more about how Walmart support was helping to change the face of American Indian education. Little did she know that the tour would also change her. Ms. Smith shares her story in her own words below:
More than three years ago, I attended a tribal college tour with the American Indian College Fund with a group of investors, board members, and corporate partners. The experience motivated me greatly to complete a graduate degree that I had begun at Phoenix University more than 13 years ago.
After visiting Little Big Horn College, Crow Agency County and Chief Dull Knife in Lame Deer, Montana, I was reminded of the struggles and tenacity of my people, my community and of the challenges so many others face just to obtain an education.
A product of divorced parents, I was fortunate to have a mother who encouraged my sister and me to pursue our dreams. She believed that with faith and action nothing would be impossible. She was a skilled cosmetologist with no formal college training but she ensured her daughters were exposed to those in the community who would support our dreams. She did not let a lack of resources stop us from becoming the best women we could become. With the support and scholarships from the United Negro College Fund, the National Urban League, the Warren Buffet Foundation and other community advocates, my sister, me, and many other African American students in Omaha, Nebraska were introduced to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and assured of the possibility of attending college.
I am a first-generation college student, graduating from Clark Atlanta University, a Historically Black College and University, located in Atlanta, Georgia.
When I met Dr. David Yarlott, Jr., president at Little Big Horn and Dr. Richard Littlebear, president at Chief Dull Knife, I was reminded of what many generations and communities have done for Native – American and African – American students all over the world. Men and women with big service-oriented hearts work tirelessly day in and day out to encourage, support and nurture the next generation, ensuring they know nothing should prevent them from breaking through to a new destiny and reality for them and their families. As people from every walk of life know, education is the great equalizer.
As I write this, I can hear Dr. Yarlott telling his story of his youth and pursuing higher education as a mature adult. I can see the look in both Dr. Yarlott’s and Dr. Littlebear’s eyes as they addressed our tour group, explaining with passion the importance of their work. I have worked in corporate for more than 20 years and have many great memories, yet what still stands out to me is that I can still remember the motivating words from Dr. Littlebear when I told him that his address on campus encouraged me to complete my master’s degree. It was clear he had a desire to see everyone to strive towards their personal best.
I will never forget my undergraduate experience at Clark Atlanta nor my fellow classmates, who understood the importance of focusing on our lessons and holding onto our faith in order to pursue our goals. The experience was invaluable. I know the tribal college experience means this and more to thousands of Native American students.
When I saw firsthand the tribal college communities, the resources they operate with, and the dedication of their teachers, students and faculty, I was gripped with respect and compassion. Miracles happen daily in the hands of these faithful few. Students work full-time jobs often while caring for children or ailing parents and still press their way towards a higher education.
My employment at Walmart has as afforded me the opportunity to play a small role in helping to support tribal college students, and for that I am grateful. You never know where life will take you, and in my position, I am in a small way able to give back and pay it forward. Even so, I believe I have received the greatest gift – letters, videos and testimonials on how Walmart’s sponsorship has helped so many Native students.
I completed a Master of Science degree in Leadership and Ethics from John Brown University in December 2010.
Thank you to the American Indian College Fund, Richard B. Williams, and the tribal colleges and students for encouraging me to pursue one of my goals!
R. Virginia Smith
Note to reader: An investment in attending a tribal college tour will give you insight into tribal communities and demonstrated how vitally important tribal colleges are to the growth and viability of Indian Country.