RED LAKE, Minn. — Liz Barrett will never forget the day in 2017 when she learned she had been accepted to Dartmouth College. She was hiding in the bathroom at her high school internship to conceal her emotions, anticipating rejection.
Her stomach dropped when she read, "Congratulations."
She had done it.
“I was kind of keeping it to myself because I thought, ‘Oh, there's no way I'm going to get in. I just want to deal with this by myself and it's going to be super embarrassing if I tell anybody.’ I went into the bathroom when it came time for them to release decisions,” she said. “I was looking at it and thought, ‘Wait.’ — I read congratulations.”
Fast forward to four years later, the 2017 Red Lake High School alumna graduated on Sunday, June 13, from Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., with a bachelor’s degree in English with a creative writing concentration and women, gender and sexuality studies minor.
According to Barrett’s family, she may be the first Red Lake High School alum to graduate from an Ivy League school. Regardless, her accomplishment sets her among the elite ranks of Ivy League graduates worldwide.
She’s now back in Red Lake planning her next steps, hoping one day to publish books of her own.
Red Lake background
While a student at Red Lake High School, Barrett tried her hand at many different things.
“I was a bit of an overachiever. I graduated as the valedictorian. I was involved with the National Honor Society, and I did one bigger History Day project where I think we placed honorary mention in state,” she said. “I did a little bit with Knowledge Bowl, a little bit with the newspaper. I kept pretty busy in high school.”
It is hard for her to recall who inspired her to think about an Ivy League school, perhaps a great aunt, but she set Dartmouth as her goal when she was in her sophomore year. She recalled telling her school counselor where she had set her sights and the counselor reacted with surprise saying, “that’s a big goal.”
“When it came time for college applications, I was just thrilled with it. I was writing all the essays and I ended up applying to nine different places. I was accepted to all of them,” Barrett said. “I applied (to Dartmouth) actually the day applications were due, really surprised to get in.”
Dartmouth’s Indigenous history
Barrett said Dartmouth caught her eye because the school claimed to offer specific accommodations for Native American students.
“It was always kind of a dream,” she said. “They recently kind of revived their original goal of recruiting Native American students. There was supposed to be extra opportunities for us.”
When Dartmouth was first established in 1769, it was with the mission to exist "for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land ... English youth, and any others," its website reads. “During the next 200 years, Dartmouth did little to actualize its founding commitment to Native students,” the Dartmouth website continued.
Dartmouth recommitted to the Indigenous community in the early 1970s, and since then has graduated more Native Americans than any other Ivy League institution. More than 1,200 Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians representing over 200 different tribal communities have attended Dartmouth, according to the Dartmouth website.
While Dartmouth has certainly come a long way since 1769, Barrett said it didn’t meet her expectations. She said it was hard to find her community.
“I was surprised to find that it wasn't as accommodating to Native American students as people had said. The fact that these institutions aren't really built for people like me, but I still found a little community, and it was everything,” Barrett said. “Community is definitely survival at Dartmouth. When I finally found it, things went a lot better.”
Currently, the freshman class at Dartmouth is made up of 4% Native American students — which is an increase from the approximately 0.5% of Native American students in Ivy League Institutions across the board.
Barrett said the culture shock was one of the biggest challenges for her, and that the elite school didn’t meet her expectations in terms of accommodations for Native American students.
“Nobody can possibly relate, there's so few of us there. I found a friend from Leech Lake, she's Ojibwe and it just worked. That really helped. With the wealth disparities and the lack of support, the lack of mental health resources it was so incredibly hard to adjust,” she said. “I think right now there should be an institution-wide shift in the way the college treats mental health. It's a systemic issue.”
In reflecting on her experience, Barrett said she'd encourage other students to aim high, but said they should trust their guts and not look at Ivy League schools as the end all be all.
“I used to think the end goal should be the most elite institutions and you should go as high as you possibly can, but now I think, just trust yourself,” she said. “There's nothing wrong with schools closer to home and there's nothing wrong with schools in a warmer place. First and foremost trust yourself.”
Writing her story
Shifting from pre-medicine to English, Barrett discovered her calling while at school.
“I should have known. Honestly, I've always wanted to be a writer. I actually started on the pre-med track, but I didn't like it that much,” she said. “When I switched to writing, I fell in love with it. There's this amazing faculty, so much support in developing my own writing and I've honestly improved so much.”
Receiving her diploma last week, Barrett felt a mix of pride and dismay. More than a quarter of her college career was spent online.
“Walking across the stage it feels like it went by too fast,” she said. “I haven't been in the library since last year — just all of that was gone. When I was there at commencement, I felt like I had missed out a little bit, but it’s still a relief, I’m still really proud.”
After graduation, she came back to Red Lake and is currently working at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. She hopes to take a year before continuing on in graduate studies.
“I'd love to be published. I’d love to find a community of writers,” she said. “I'm still kind of feeling out of the field. I don't know if I want to stay home because a lot of people are like, ‘it's the goal to get out of Red Lake, you're lucky if you get out,’ but it's not like that for me. I think it's really beautiful there and I have my family and deep cultural roots. I could definitely see myself staying there, too.”