Best & Brightest: The
War Vet, Financial Aid Activist and Ivy
by Mary Annette
For John Around Him, the idea of
attending Dartmouth College seemed impossible. When Wick Sloane, his
writing teacher at Bunker Hill Community
College, suggested he apply to the Ivy
League school, Around Him thought Sloan
“It only took us 10 months to
convince him he should apply to
Dartmouth,” says Sloane.
Around Him, 26, is beginning his sophomore
year this fall at Dartmouth. His road to
the school was an extraordinary journey
that took him from the Pine Ridge
Reservation to Iraq to community college
to Capitol Hill.
Around Him is a member of the
Lakota tribe. He was born and raised on
the Pine Ridge Reservation
where he graduated from Little Wound
High School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs
school on the reservation. College was never
discussed at Little Wound.
“No one ever pulled me aside and asked
if I wanted to go to college,” he says.
The only route to college seemed to be
through the military, so John enlisted in
the Army and was scheduled to leave
on Sept. 11, 2001. Around Him was
anxious about leaving the reservation.
He had packed his bags the night before
and said goodbye to friends and family.
The next day his sister Clovia shouted
to him using his
“John John, you need to get up. We’re
John stumbled into the living room just in
time to see the TV broadcast of the
second plane hitting the World Trade
“It was all coming at me pretty fast.
Does this mean I’m going to war
tomorrow?” he wondered.
The following spring, he was
driving a tank in Iraq.
“It was the scariest time of my life. We
were in the thick of things the entire
time,” he say of his year overseas.
the Army, John returned to Pine
Ridge where he fell in love with Dina Wagner,
a teacher at Little Wound School. When
Dina left to attend Harvard, John followed her,
took a full time job, and began attending
classes at Bunker Hill. He was inspired
by the other students' commitment to get an
Bunker Hill, John took a writing class taught by
Sloane, who emphasized writing for
survival. The students found they had a
common concern: how to pay for college.
“It didn’t take them long to figure out
that community college students get the
short end of the stick in terms of
financial aid,” Sloane says.
The students decided to focus on the
final clause of the First Amendment, the
right to petition the government for
redress of grievances as a means to
bring their situation to the attention
of lawmakers. As part of the assignment,
Around Him chose to write a letter to
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. In it, he asked why he
(Around Him), a veteran and low-income
Native American, is excluded from much of
the federal financial aid offered to
The day after e-mailing the letter,
Around Him received a call from Sloane.
“Wick told me to get my classmates
together. Sen. Kerry is visiting our
class tomorrow,” Around Him recalls.
Around Him and his fellow students
quickly arranged for a meeting space and
security. They also authored a
proposal calling for expanded financial
aid for low-income and minority
students. They presented the
proposal to Kerry’s staff.
Around Him was later offered an
internship with Kerry. He worked in his
Washington D.C. office for a semester.
Empowered by this and his Bunker Hill
experience, Around Him later applied Dartmouth College.
“John didn’t get the reception we had
hoped for when he initially emailed
Dartmouth on his own,” Sloane says.
bring Around Him’s
situation to the attention of Dartmouth
President James Wright. Wright is
expanding educational opportunities for
veterans and people of color.
Eventually Around Him was accepted at
John says the course work at
Dartmouth is challenging.
“I had to read only one book during my
entire high school career at Little
Wound. Here at Dartmouth, I had to read
10 books in one term alone,” he says.
His passion for education is leading him
toward a major in education and a minor
in English. “My short-term goal is to return to
Pine Ridge to teach; my long-term goal
is to become an administrator at Little
Wound High School,” he says.
Around Him says a "pity factor" mentality is a
recipe for failure for young Native
Americans on reservation schools.
“The mentality seems be that since the
students have such hard lives, we
shouldn’t expect much from them in
school,” he says.
“I want to raise the bar for reservation
students and increase the rigor of the
course work,” he says.
His great hope is to change the state of
affairs in Native American education for
Text from Around Him’s 2007 letter
to John Kerry
Dear Sen. Kerry,
My name is John Around Him,
and I am a student at Bunker Hill
Community College in Boston. I am Native
American and a veteran of the war in
I am sure you, a veteran of the
Vietnam War, can relate to putting your
life on the line; to live in an
environment of gunfire, explosions,
chaos and confusion, wondering if the
next second might be your last. For most
students, the idea of being shot at and
delaying enrollment to earn money for
college isn't very appealing.
But, for those students who
do not qualify for federal financial
aid, like me, it may be the only option
and this is why I am writing to you. I
believe the federal financial aid system
is ineffective in helping students pay
for college, especially low-income and
I grew up on the Pine Ridge
Reservation in South Dakota and
graduated from Little Wound High School
in 2001. I was an average student,
maintaining a grade point average just
below 3.0. I always thought about going
to college. However, there is one
question that most students, including
myself, often ask themselves -- how do I
pay for college? I lived with my father
(a single parent) and with two other
families. He would also often take care
of other relatives coming from broken
homes. My father was a language teacher,
respectable, but not the wealthiest
career, so family support was out of the
Certainly, there is money and
programs out there to help students pay
for college, but which students?
According to the formulas used in the
federal financial aid system, my father
made too much money; therefore, I did
not qualify for financial aid. This is
the case for a lot more students like
Students either have to be
dirt poor to get federal financial aid
or in the top 10 [percent]
academically to receive scholarships
these days. What about the students in
the middle who worked hard and did their
best (which by popular belief is the
path towards success), but fail to enter
or stay in college because of the
Today, the average tuition
cost (including room and board),
according to the report
"Trends in College Pricing 2006" by
the College Board, for public
universities is $12,796. In contrast to
the average tuition cost in 2000, we
have seen an increase of $4,357. It is
evident that colleges are raising
tuition, due mostly in part by the lack
of state funding. Furthermore, although
increases have been made, federal
financial aid has not kept up with the
rising cost of tuition. But, the
increase in tuition isn't the only thing
students have to worry about.
The formulas and standards
used to determine a student's financial
need are unrealistic to the average
student or family. For example,
according to the federal financial aid
system, to be considered independent
(which greatly determines if you receive
financial aid) you must meet one of the
following: 24 years of age or older;
married; a veteran; or orphans or wards
of the court. However, today, most
students are financially independent
after high school. A 2005 study by the
National Center for Education Statistics
showed that independent students make up
64 percent of the students at community
colleges and 37 percent at four-year
public colleges. About three in five of
those students worked at least 35 hours
Independent students must
often cut working hours to attend class,
or take classes part-time to work
full-time. Both of which can be
extremely stressful and discouraging.
As Mark Twain once said, the
difference between the lightning bug and
the lightning is a really large matter.
I am not saying students should not join
the military. Would I have joined the
military had I received financial aid?
Perhaps, perhaps not. I for one support
our troops and enjoyed my time in the
service. The values, discipline and
experience contributed to who I am today
and I am thankful for that.
However, going to war is
expensive and ugly. Was going to war
necessary? I don't know. But I do know
this: to take care of those around us,
we must first take care of ourselves.
I am writing to you not
only on my behalf, but for the
well-being of my country and my family.
The federal financial aid system is
deleting a majority of those students in
need of financial aid. With state budget
cuts, tuition continues to rise and the
climb towards success is getting
steeper. For some students seeking
higher education, the financial aid
options are slim. I feel as though these
problems are often overlooked.
As a result, like a
cancerous disease, problems like these
will continue to grow to the point of no
return, and we will watch -- a dying
Volume 2 October 2009
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