American Indian students finding niche

Good influences help guide educational goals at Mont. Tech

The road to Montana Tech has been circuitous for Native American students Paul Nepine, Martin Lorenzo and Delilah Friedlander.

But all three are where they are today because of the Alfred P. Sloan scholarship or the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

Native American students have much lower college attendance rates than white students and many Native students grow up on reservations with high unemployment and generational poverty, statistics show.

Lorenzo is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico. Good math and science teachers in high school motivated him to pursue a degree in the

science, technology, engineering and math fields in New Mexico, but too much college partying got in the way. Fast forward a few decades and Lorenzo is a master’s degree student in environmental engineering at Tech.

“I always wanted to go back to school,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the Sloan scholarship, there’s no way I could have gone to grad school.”

With the help of the scholarship, Lorenzo has nearly completed studies and supports his two high-school aged children in Browning.

Delilah Friedlander, who is Kootenai-Colville-Chippewa, said she has been drawn to chemistry since high school, but the earning of a chemistry degree took a lot of effort on her part.

“The reality of how challenging it is took some time and tenacity,” she said.

Friedlander is earning a master’s degree in geochemistry from Tech while supporting her two children and nephew and commuting every weekend to Missoula with help of the Sloan scholarship. But despite the challenges, she’s determined to finish her graduate degree.

“Not a lot of my peers went to college,” she said. “They should have. They were smart enough. A lot of people in my family have emphasized education throughout my life. It was drilled into me from early on that education is the way to change things personally, socially and in the tribal infrastructure.”

Friedlander said a challenge for children on reservations is getting bored and getting involved in drugs and alcohol instead of committing to their studies.

“My Polson High School chemistry teacher was very encouraging,” she said. “He said, ‘You’re smart enough to do this if you want to.’ I’ve always liked to challenge myself. If your dreams don’t scare you a little bit, you’re not pushing yourself.”

Friedlander said the support she’s received from professors and advisers at Tech has made her feel like a student who matters, not just a student ID number.

For Paul Nepine, being the president of the Montana Tech American Indian Science and Engineering Society chapter has given him the opportunity to use his life experiences while earning an undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering.

“I’ve been able to provide a purpose for Native Americans up here at this university,” he said. “I’ve always felt very passionate that the only way Native Americans can get off the reservations and better themselves is to get an education. Promoting a STEM education to Native American people is important and AISES has provided that platform for me.”

The chapter plans to offer STEM —Science, Technology, Engineering, Math — disciplines tutoring for area Native youth next semester.

Nepine, who is half Chippewa, grew up in Bozeman. It took overcoming an alcohol addiction to get a handle on his life and pursue an education.

“I’ve always wanted to return to school,” he said. “I felt I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted to do in my life. I considered environmental engineering but I didn’t want to be part of the cleanup process. I wanted to be involved with making sure something like (the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill) never happens again.”