Twila grew up in a border town, just outside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She was one of the few Native students in her high school, where she excelled as a straight-A student. As a teenager, Twila hoped to go off to college and find her own path.
Today, Twila still moves in two worlds—and that unique vantage point has helped her identify opportunities to improve the college experience for Native students. At Montana State University in Bozeman, Twila is both a graduate student in the Department of Education and Assistant Director in the Office of Financial Aid. From her position as a student and an employee, Twila saw a gap in financial supports for Native students.
There's not a lot of data and research that support the Native American experience or perceptions of financial aid.
“I did not expect to be so motivated by this, but there's not a lot of data and research that support the Native American experience or perceptions of financial aid, or that take into context cultural backgrounds, treaty rights, land grant colleges, and the mission to create college access for these students,” said Twila.
With support from her mentor, Dr. Sweeney Windchief, Twila began to focus her research on this intersection of Native students and financial aid. Last year, she wrote a paper that analyzed the Montana American Indian tuition waiver and its Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) requirement through the lens of Tribal Critical Race Theory. The theory offers a framework for understanding the complex relationship between Indigenous peoples and U.S. systems and institutions.
For Twila, Tribal Critical Race Theory has been a helpful tool for critiquing systems and policies through a Native perspective—a point of view that historically has not been centered in higher education or academic research.
Twila gave one example relevant to her work in financial aid: “Currency wasn't a concept built by our Tribes; it was introduced to us more recently. I have been wondering about the implications of that and how we go about building financial literacy program that is culturally relevant for Native American students,” she said. “The FAFSA makes a lot of assumptions about what parents can do financially, but sometimes it's not the reality, especially when you look at blended Native American families, the land that they're living on, and their lifestyles at home.”
Last month, Twila presented her research with Dr. Windchief at the Northern Rocky Mountain Educational Research Association conference, where she also won the Dr. Gregory Schraw Student Fellowship Award. This experience validated the work Twila has been doing for years. Conference attendees didn’t just react positively to her presentation—they also wanted to know what she planned to do next.
“Once I heard that, I realized I am addressing really good questions about what's going on in higher education. And I wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't have my financial aid experience or if I didn't navigate the same systems myself,” Twila said.
I realized I am addressing really good questions about what's going on in higher education.
This support and positive feedback have motivated Twila to continue along the path she’s already walking. Twila is on track to complete her master’s program next spring. After that, she hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in education at Montana State. Her current research interests include financial literacy, college access, financial aid, and Native American students.
Twila is still exploring what role she wants to pursue in higher education, but she knows one thing for certain: she wants to serve as a mentor to other Native American students. From personal experience, she knows that mentors—like her professor Dr. Windchief—are invaluable supports for students as they navigate the world of higher education.
“Just having that one person that a student can identify with can reduce or eliminate barriers, and that has been so relevant because I have more and more students coming to me who identify as Native American needing help with navigating paying for school and other campus resources,” she said. “I just want to be that mentor for them: paying it forward, giving back, and helping them wherever they need it.”
Every year, the Steven R. Nelson Native Educator Scholarship Program recognizes and supports Native students in the Northwest who are pursuing a master’s degree in education policy, leadership, research, or related fields. The application deadline is March 31, 2022.