Karlee Bigtree grew up on the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation, located about six hours away from Buffalo. While her sister became a teenage mother, her own mother was battling with substance abuse. Bigtree was the first in her family to graduate with a high school diploma.
Next spring, she will also be the first to graduate with a degree from college.
The junior business major and president of the Native American Peoples' Alliance at UB has had her share of adversity. That's why she plans to return to her reservation after graduation: to use her degree to help others who face adversity in her community.
"I heard an expression once: red on the outside, white on the inside. ‘Like an apple,' I hear people say on the reservation. ‘Yeah you look Native, but you're going to change by going off the reservation,'" Bigtree said. "But I didn't change. I'm still tied to my community and my culture. That was always my goal: to go back to my community after I graduate."
Native American college students attending SUNY colleges have stories similar to Bigtree's, but not all end with an optimistic outlook. Native American students have the highest college dropout rates of any other minority in the SUNY system, a trend that campus organizations and faculty at UB are working to reverse.