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Native American student from Grand Forks to attend Harvard medical school, wants to return to help Native youth

SaNoah LaRocque explains her future plans for Harvard at Grand Forks Central High School in January in Grand Forks. Logan Werlinger / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS – SaNoah LeRocque always knew she wanted to be a doctor.

It was a dream she’s clung to throughout most of her young adult life, after living in five states and attending 13 schools. Now, as the Grand Forks Central High School senior looks forward to graduating this spring, she’s preparing to leave again, this time for Harvard University as a pre-med student. She’d like to be a neonatologist or an oncologist, she said.

LaRocque is among a small number of state graduates who are accepted to Ivy League schools, and the first Native American graduate of the Grand Forks School District to have done so in the past decade, according to district records. She’s also among more than 40 percent of the Native population under age 20 in the state.

Her strong sense of self-awareness as a Native American has impacted her academic life, she said.

“I’ve always known that how I perform in school and in the community is going to reflect on the entire Native American community,” she said. “I’ve always tried to hold that in very high esteem, and to do what I can to make things better for my peers and community.”

Education on reservations

LaRocque, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, stayed focused on her career interests while facing much transition.

At a young age, she left her native Belcourt, N.D., with her “free spirit” mother and brother, moving to various cities within South Dakota, Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado.

“She just had a lot of different interests and pursuits that she wanted to attain,” she said. “That just meant a lot of change for my brother and I. But I had the opportunity to experience a lot of different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, so I’m very thankful for that.”

Attending two out-of-state schools run by tribes was very different than what she’s known of public education, she said.

“The quality of education was not at all what it should be,” she said.

In New Mexico, she spent her ninth-grade year on the Zuni Pueblo reservation. Although it was a public school, the education was at a very basic level, and this was complicated by unmotivated teachers who may have been responding to unmotivated students, she said. Some students carried on their elder’s belief that being educated by white men takes away from their culture, she said.

But the experience was also balanced by the tribe’s insistence – against the odds – on retaining their language, customs and culture, she said.

“My native language is dying out and so is our culture, so just to see that was a motivating push to save those things,” she said.

LaRocque later returned to Grand Forks to live with her grandparents. She’s attended Central High School for the past three years, the longest she’s stayed at one school, she said.

In North Dakota, reservation schools typically don’t stray from public schools, said Lucy Fredericks, director of Indian Education at the state Department of Public Instruction.

“They pretty much follow the state curriculum, especially if they receive state funding,” she said.

Bureau of Indian Education schools, funded directly by tribes, follow similar standards, she said. For instance, the BIE has adopted the Common Core educational standards for math and English that are now being implemented in schools across the state.

Preparing for the future

LaRocque sought out opportunities outside of school to benefit her future medical career.

While in New Mexico, she flew back to Grand Forks to attend a six-week summer program at UND that prepares Native students for health careers. She also spent a few years working at Altru Hospital – both in the oncology and neonatal intensive care unit – through a school-related internship and a volunteer program, she said.

“I’m sure before college I’ll change my mind, but so far, that’s what I want to do,” she said.

But she’d also like to see education improve in classrooms and in attitudes among students, she said.

Controversy over UND’s Fighting Sioux logo – or really any aspect of Native culture – has sometimes put unnecessary pressure on students to be responsive or a representative, she said. Anybody associated with Native culture has been asked to give their opinion multiple times, she said.

“I’m flattered that people want to know my opinion, but at the same time, that’s racism in itself to ask an 18-year-old girl to speak on behalf of 500-plus tribes in North America,” she said.

LaRocque cherishes her culture but hopes others can move beyond the stereotypes of buckskin dresses and Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, she said.

After she pursues her medical degree, she hopes to return to her reservation and work with the people there, she said.

“I want to also work with youth and help bring a positive influence and emphasize the importance of education,” she said.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 

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