*Editor’s Note — This is part of a conversation series highlighted as part of Native American Heritage Month on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Medium page. The series will feature students who are making impacts on campus and beyond.
This week, meet Gabriel Bruguier, part of Ihanktonwan Oyate (Yankton Sioux Tribe) from Vermillion and Sisseton, South Dakota. In his position as the education and outreach coordinator with the Mid-America Transportation Center, he’s connecting local students — particularly those in Native communities — with STEM opportunities and ways to learn more about four-year colleges.*
Talk a little bit about your position at the university’s Mid-America Transportation Center.
My title is education and outreach coordinator. I oversee three outreach programs that together cover students from kindergarten through undergraduate studies. The first is Roads, Rails, and Race Cars, a STEM after-school program for students K-12, though our main focus is on middle school students. The second is the Sovereign Native Youth STEM Leadership Academy. This is a week-long residential program (i.e., students stay on campus throughout the week) for Native American high school students. The third is the Scholars Program for Tribal College Students. This is a bridge program for tribal college students who are interested in transitioning to a four-year college after completing their associate’s degree. I create the curriculum for each program, manage a staff for some programs (after school, summer academy), set up collaborations with UNL and non-UNL partners, logistics and most importantly, connect with students and ensure that they are having a good experience during the programs.
Additionally, I do research related to our programs — analysis of data taken from pre- and post-surveys that we conduct during the program, and synthesis of literature related to educational issues faced by Native American students in higher education. I have a couple of research papers in preparation.
Did you join MATC before or after getting your master’s and doctorate at Nebraska? Is there anything in particular that made you want stay with MATC?
I joined MATC after I had earned my Master of Arts in 2015, but before I earned the doctorate in 2019 (both in philosophy). I researched and wrote my dissertation while working full-time. I stayed on because I truly believe in the work we do here. I was given the task of extending our outreach efforts to Native American students, and from the outset, we were concerned with doing it right. By ‘doing it right’ I mean that our first steps were to develop relationships with tribal community members and educators, to listen to them and their concerns, and then use our resources to develop outreach programs that met those needs. We also listen to our participants — we offer pre and post-surveys for our programs, and respond directly to feedback. Our programs really are driven by the voices of our Native communities. So there was a lot of momentum going after I became a Ph.D., and I did not want to leave!
Also, it would be remiss of me to not mention that I had, and continue to have, amazing support from MATC directors Larry Rilett (until 2021), current MATC director Aemal Khattak, and former chemical engineering professor, Chris Cornelius. These men care deeply about outreach, and particularly about Native American outreach, and do so much to support our students. It has been such a pleasure to work with them.
This summer, after a two-year hiatus, MATC brought back the Sovereign Native Youth STEM Leadership Academy. What do students do through the academy and what is the goal of this program?
In summer 2022, our theme was, “Native Youth for the Seventh Generation.” The seventh generation principle is held by many tribal nations, such that decisions made should honor past generations, and benefit seven generations forward. Under that theme we scheduled activities under three categories: one, cultural appreciation and preservation; two, health and wellness; and three, nature stewardship. For some highlights related to cultural appreciation, we had visual arts projects such as laser cutting metal designs at Nebraska Innovation Studio, and were hosted by the Great Plains Art Museum for a visual art activity with Sarah Rowe (Ponca and Lakota). For health and wellness, we had skateboard workshops at The Bay, basketball coaching workshops, bicycles for exploring campus donated by Lincoln Bike Kitchen, and a workshop with the university’s Native Food Sovereignty program. And for nature stewardship, one of the highlights was that we had a partnership with Spring Creek Audubon Society and students caught and tagged birds, determined the health of a water ecosystem, and completed several botany activities.
This summer we were also sponsored by the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, which the students loved. There were VR headsets and video games, video game jams, and movies played on the big screen!
One of the most important parts of the summer academy is the meals. Offering food to our ancestors, gathering together for fellowship, nourishment and laughing are activities that carry us forward as a people, even though we come from different tribes and backgrounds.
You’ve also talked about how glad you were to have them back on campus. Can you also speak to why you’re passionate about this program?
I was so glad to have students back! It is so wonderful to see the development of confidence, personality and inner strength during the week. For first-time students, it is very overwhelming to be staying on this big campus in the middle of the city. The majority of them come from rural, reservation communities. But by the end of the week, they don’t want to leave! And for students who’ve been through the program, it is so rewarding to hear how they’ve been doing, and to see how we can help them achieve their goals. During the week, all students begin to realize that they belong here, that there are other Natives around who care about them and support them, and that if attending Nebraska is a goal of theirs, it is within their reach. Removing as many obstacles to higher education for our Native students is what I am most passionate about in this program.
Being involved in outreach and education deals with lots of community engagement and giving back to the state through your work. Are these things you were passionate about prior to this role?
Those passions began to develop after I had been in the Ph.D. program for a few years. I was beginning to come to grips with the fact that I didn’t really want to pursue the typical philosophy route after grad school, i.e., struggle to find a teaching job and publish. I started to learn about outreach efforts here on campus when I was assigned to be the instructor for the philosophy section for the William H. Thompson Scholars Learning Community. Also around that time, I met Judi gaiashkibos, the executive director at the Nebraska Commission in Indian Affairs. Judi invited me to serve as a leadership counselor at the Sovereign Native Youth Leadership Academy — the precursor to our Summer Academy — which was an enormously significant moment for me. This awoke a desire to work for Native youth that had been dormant in me, and completely reoriented my life trajectory.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Seeing students grow and succeed over the years.
Is there anything you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
I’ve got a book or two in the works. One is on the meaning of life from a Native perspective. The other is on the Nebraska philosopher and renaissance man, Hartley Burr Alexander.
Another goal is to get a space on campus for Native students, as well as Native staff to assist in recruitment, retention and academic success for Native students. We need a Native community space on campus. I’ve seen firsthand, as well as researched, the myriad benefits that such spaces and support bring about.
What or who inspires you?
The formerly mentioned people: Chris Cornelius, Judi gaiashkibos, Aemal Khattak, Larry Rilett. However, my biggest inspiration is my father, Leonard Bruguier (1944–2009). He grew up in poverty on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after high school, because he saw that as a ticket off the reservation, and eventually with G.I. funding, a means to pay for college. After completing basic training, he was deployed to Vietnam, where he served two tours, and was injured in combat during the second. After being discharged, he earned a machinist degree and license and worked as a machinist and mechanic. He started dating my mother around that time, they got married, and started a family. Around that time he decided to go back to school, this time to earn a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of South Dakota.
I was born while he was in school, in Vermillion, South Dakota. He excelled and was encouraged by his professors to pursue a graduate degree. He went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration (University of South Dakota), and then a Ph.D. in American history (Oklahoma State University). He was then invited to return to USD to assume the directorship of the Institute for American Indian Studies, and an assistant professor appointment in history.
Unfortunately, my parents’ marriage didn’t survive graduate school. My mother moved with me, my sister, and brother up to where her family lived, in Sisseton, South Dakota. I grew up there, but us kids would spend extended periods in Vermillion during the summer. I have very idyllic memories of USD’s campus in the summer, and was so impressed to be with him in his office, seeing him behind his huge desk, amidst an impressive collection of books and Native art and photographs.
Most importantly, he encouraged me academically throughout my student years. It was never a question for me that I would go to college. This is very atypical for Native students. Eventually, I was able to live with him while I was working on my first undergraduate degree. He had retired by then. In one conversation I asked him what was the most important part of his job at the Institute and USD, and he replied, “Being an Indian on the other side of the desk.” That didn’t fully register for me until more than a decade later, when I was running the outreach programs at MATC. A constant concern for Natives in higher education is the lack of visibility and representation. So it makes me glad to think that I’m now behind a desk at Nebraska, helping as many Native students as I can. I had just finished my degree and was preparing for grad school when he passed away. It is not an exaggeration to say that I thought about him every day that I was in grad school. Now that I have reached this point in my career I am thinking of ways to honor his legacy, and carry on the important work he started.
What is your advice to others looking to make an impact?
I don’t have any inspirational phrases to offer, just a list of things: work hard, don’t cut corners, be prepared to fail, learn the lesson from your failures and move on, read an hour or two every day — from an actual, physical book! Also, consult with your elders, whoever they may be, they have so much to offer.