By Dave Charpentier, Mentoring Program Coordinator
Usually, it’s what St. Labre students take away from college that thrills me. But in Hunter Old Elk’s case, it’s what she left behind that had me beaming with pride.
“I really can’t say enough about her,” Dr. Gregory Murry excitedly told me as we visited at the reception for liberal arts students. It was early Saturday afternoon, the day before graduation. I hadn’t seen Hunter yet, but immediately upon arriving on campus people began to tell me how great she is.
“I really enjoyed having her in class and on campus. She has a gift of helping people see things from a different perspective,” Murry continued.
At the reception, I also ran into Dr. Michelle Patterson, another history professor I had met on previous visits to the campus. She acted happy to see me too and couldn’t wait to tell me how much she enjoyed Hunter.
“It is so good to see you here again,” she said warmly. “It has been so wonderful having Hunter here at the Mount and as a student in several of my classes. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to work with your St. Labre students in this program. As a scholar of Native American history, I appreciated the chance to learn more about the lives and cultures of both Gary (Class of 2014) and Hunter the past few years. Both the students and I gained immeasurably from their presence and participation. The entire Mount community has been enriched because of them.”
“Thanks for sharing that with me,” I told her. “And thanks for taking such good care of Hunter here,” as we both looked up to see Hunter enter the room.
“Hey Dave,” she said with a giant smile on her face. “I’m glad you made it.”
Saturday evening, after the Baccalaureate Mass, Hunter and her family were invited to the president’s home as honored guests for a pre-graduation dinner. I was fortunate enough to have been included in the invitation. While we sat at our tables waiting for dinner, Hunter was called up by the president to receive a special gift. Then during dinner, the provost, Dr. Jennie Hunter-Cevera, stopped by our table and sat next to Hunter to visit. I overheard her say, “It has been wonderful having you here on campus. We are going to miss you. You have been a rising star here.”
It was wonderful to hear these things about Hunter. For one, it made me incredibly proud. I have grown very close to her over the years. In addition, it was a strong affirmation of what St. Labre is doing to prepare our students for success in college.
From my perspective, she is a go-getter, and she doesn’t let anything keep her from experiencing new things or stop her from applying her Crow cultural views upon the situations she encounters. She is inquisitive, delightful to talk to, and, if you are around her, you better be ready to engage in an animated discussion about politics, culture, art, and education.
She also has a softer, more emotional side. While we were at dinner at the president’s home, we reflected upon her time at the Mount and the incredible experience that was only possible because of the scholarship she received from St. Labre. She became overwhelmed and started crying, which in turn made her mom and me start to cry.
“Thank you for everything,” her mom whispered over Hunter’s shoulder to me as she and Hunter embraced.
Students and parents often thank me, but it is really to the generosity of the donors and commitment of the teachers that they are expressing their gratitude. I am just lucky to be in position to witness it unfolding.
When asked about her success, Hunter is candid, giving credit to those who helped her, but pointing out how significant it was that she learned to seek help.
“I relied heavily on my family and the support I sought from mentors at my university. I recognized early on that I had to ask for help and use my resources provided by the school and my friends.”
She also offers this guidance: “It is not okay to feel lonely. Native American students experience education much differently than other students. Native students often feel pressured to represent their whole race and, therefore, do not want to fail.”
At graduation, Hunter was honored as the first Native American woman to graduate from Mount St. Mary’s. I was also invited to stand with her as a representative of St. Labre Indian School, to honor our long established partnership with the university.
Monday was moving day. After piling all of her suitcases in the van, we made one final stop on campus – Hunter’s favorite place, which was a large expanse of grass that allowed us to see all of the buildings of campus, including a view of the golden statue of Mary on the mountain above.
She spun around a few times in the sunshine and then she jumped in the air with her arms above her head.
“Let’s go to Montana,” she said.
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Postscript: This summer Hunter will be completing an internship at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, as a Plains Indian Museum intern. Her long-term goal is to pursue a museum studies master’s degree and someday become curator of a large museum in the West.