How one MSUM student defied all odds to graduate

By Nate Gilbraith, MSUM Marketing Intern

The alarmingly high dropout rate of American Indian students is not a new reality. According to the National Indian Education Association, the national dropout rate for American Indian students is 15 percent. However, Minnesota State University of Moorhead criminal justice major Cera Swiftwater refused to be a statistic.

Cera_5561 webcopySwiftwater grew up on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation, where she was raised by her 17-year-old single mother. When Swiftwater was 15, she and her four brothers and sisters were placed in foster care. During her time in the foster care system, Swiftwater moved from school to school and even switched schools three different times over the course of four months.

Swiftwater stayed focused and remained on track to graduate high school. She says she was motivated by hoping to set an example for her younger family members.

“My siblings have struggled a lot through school and I asked myself, ‘What can I do to help them?’ On the reservations sometimes you don’t have that mentor,” explained Swiftwater. “For me, I thought I can be that person, I can be who they look up to.”

By graduating from high school, Swiftwater defied yet another statistic. Based off a 2012 report published by the U.S. Department of Education, South Dakota has one of the lowest American Indian graduation rates in the nation of 49 percent. Out of her graduating class of 12, she was the only one to attend college.

At the start of Swiftwater’s MSUM career, she struggled making connections with her fellow students.

“When I first came here, I stayed to myself a lot and I didn’t leave my dorm much,” she explained. “I did everything by myself because I didn’t want to be around people.”

It wasn’t until Swiftwater got involved with MSUM’s American Indian Student Association (AISA) that she started to enjoy her college experience. As AISA president, she realized that many American Indian students were struggling to embrace the college experience, just as she had.

“I wanted an organization that made Native American students feel comfortable. They come to college and they feel like they don’t have any support.”

After initiating weekly meetings, study groups and even the occasional movie night, Swiftwater increased membership and led AISA to receive the award for Best Diversity Program on campus.

While Swiftwater was making improvements to AISA, she was also excelling academically.

“She’s one of those fantastic students that teachers can learn more from than they can ever hope to teach her,” said Professor Kate Richardson Jens. “She’s very bright, very in-tuned to the world and her community.”

In the midst of her college career, Swiftwater decided to take a semester off and enrolled in the National Guard.

“If you ask anybody who knows me they would never have guessed that I would join the military. I’m very uncoordinated and I don’t play sports. I’m pretty sure I hopped out of the womb in heels. It just wasn’t something I would do. It was very out of character for me,” Swiftwater said.

Months before she was to deploy for basic training, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Swiftwater questioned her choice, but her mother encouraged her to stick to her decision, telling her that she was going and there were “no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

During Swiftwater’s basic training in the Minnesota National Guard, the recruits attended a training session on domestic violence and sexual assault, igniting a passion within her.

“I have a lot empathy for domestic violence and sexual assault victims because I’ve seen it first hand. I felt like I could use my knowledge and experience to help them.”

Swiftwater pursued her passion by volunteering and later interning at the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, where she worked directly with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“Helping these victims became second nature to me,” Swiftwater said. “It further instilled that this is where I need to be and this is what I’m supposed to do.”

Today, Swiftwater focuses on raising awareness of the high violence and abuse rates experienced by American Indian women and children. She says spreading her message would not be possible without the help from the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center and MSUM.

“The Center instilled more confidence in me and assured me that I know how to help resolve these issues. MSUM gave me the opportunities to use my knowledge.”

Through connections at MSUM, Swiftwater was able to serve with the Fargo Native American Commission where she discussed the problems facing American Indian women and children as well as potential solutions to alleviate the high abuse rates.

“Cera has faced more challenges at a young age than many people experience in their lifetime. Rather than allowing these to stop her, she draws from these as inspiration to create positive change in her community,” said Sociology Professor Deborah White. “Her work to raise awareness about high rates of violence and abuse experienced by Native American women and children, along with her commitment to help others in her home community, are truly inspirational.”

On December 17, Swiftwater will overcome her greatest obstacle yet. Not only will she be walking during MSUM’s Commencement Ceremony, but she will also give the student commencement address. Her address will focus on how she has channeled MSUM’s main cores of grit, humility and heart to help overcome her adversities.

“It has always seemed like I’d get through one thing then I’d have to face another obstacle and then another obstacle after that. But it’s gotten me to where I am and it’s made me who I am today.”