Courtesy Carol Walker
Carol and Kelly Walker at hooding ceremony, where they received a standing ovation after the announcement that mother and daughter were graduating together.

Education Is a Family Affair: Mother and Daughter Graduate Together

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Carol Painte Walker couldn't be more proud of her two children—30-year-old Steven, the elder of the two, graduated from United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota, with a two-year degree in computer technology. Later, he went to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Now he is in his first year of law school at the University of Kansas (KU).

Steven’s sister, Kelly, 24, earned a bachelor’s degree in indigenous studies from Haskell, and in May graduated from KU with a master’s degree in social work.

What made Kelly's graduation extra sweet was that Carol was at her side graduating with her, having also come through KU’s School of Social Welfare MSW program.

"KU believes it's the first time in their history that a mother and daughter have graduated together from the school of social welfare," Carol, 63, tells ICTMN.

The Walker family is Arikara and Hidatsa from the Three Affiliated Tribes at Ft. Berthold; Steven and Kelly are also Comanche. Carol earned degrees in dental assisting and applied science in business education in the 1970s from Haskell, then a junior college. Later she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Mary in Bismarck, and then worked for several years as a counselor at UTTC. "If it weren't for the tribal colleges, we wouldn't be where we are,” Carol says. “I am so grateful for the opportunities they provided us, and I am a huge believer in higher education for Indian people.”

The Walker family on graduation day, including daughter-in-law Erin. (Courtesy Carol Walker)

Tribal colleges and universities are on or near Indian reservations and are run by tribes. UTTC was established in 1969 by an association of Native nations in North Dakota. There are 38 tribal colleges and universities in the U.S., and admission requires enrollment in a federally recognized tribe or the ability to document descendants from an enrolled member. Haskell is one of only two universities run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education (the other being Southwestern Polytechnic Indian University in Albuquerque, New Mexico).

As a non-traditional student, the prospect of going back to school at an older age was daunting to Carol. It was the encouragement from both of her children and the support systems at Haskell and the Native community in Lawrence that got her through. “It was a team effort, and that included Stephen,” Carol says with pride.

The biggest challenges she faced were the technology and academic methods. “I showed up to the MSW orientation with only a pen and notebook, while the other students all had laptops and tablets,” she says, laughing. “Steven said he would build me a computer and help me. Kelly understood the academic and technical language and helped me out that way. I spent a lot of time in the library learning APA [an academic writing format] and Endnote [a software program for managing bibliographies and references].”

But what Carol lacked when it came to the technology, she made up for in experience. “Being older and having more life experience helped me with everything, including writing papers,” she says.

Her mom’s tenacity and dedication to education were an inspiration to Kelly, who is no stranger to high achievement. When she was at Haskell she was crowned Miss Haskell for 2012-2013, a testament to her knowledge of her cultural traditions as well as her public speaking abilities and leadership qualities.

And her mother is quick to point out that Kelly applied for and received an Indian Health Service scholarship that funded her entire last year in graduate school.

Kelly acknowledges the privilege of going to college. “It's a blessing. Not many get to have the opportunity of higher education and I am just thankful to the creator for that," she says.

Pictured are Carol and Kelly Walker. (Courtesy Laurie Ramirez)

For Kelly the biggest challenges of graduate school were time management and balancing homework with everything else in her life, and the uncertainty of a career. “At times I felt hesitant, not being sure what to do in the social work field, whether I would work in a school, tribal, or some other program,” Kelly says.

Her master’s program gave her a good taste of what working in a school setting would be like when she interned at Lawrence High School. “I worked with the school social worker, and with students in need of support. Kids who are homeless, applying for the ACT, developing college pathways or individual education plans, and other support plans. I also enjoyed talking with students about mental health issues, which included support in crisis, and suicide [intervention].”

What's next for the Walker women? Kelly is in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs at KU and other nearby universities. She wants to stay in social work and after completing her education she sees herself working with Native people, either in a high school setting or teaching at a college.

Carol also wants to keep working with Native students. She would like to find a counseling position either at Haskell or UTTC. And if that doesn't happen, she envisions working in a behavioral health position with IHS. Carol and Kelly must also complete clinical hours in order to qualify for board certification as Licensed Clinical Social Workers.

In the meantime, they have been enjoying their time out of school and doing what many Native people do during the summer—attending powwows.

Kelly, Carol, and Steven Walker. (Courtesy Carol Walker)

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