Wednesday, October 28, 2009

'I want to be a role model for my kids'

December, 2008. The night before commencement. The string quartet played Boccherini, Vivaldi, Bach. About 80 Distance Degree Programs graduates and family members ate pasta and chicken at Washington State University’s Lewis Alumni Center. Valerie Quintasket's sleeveless red dress defied the forecast of a blizzard. So did the fact that she had driven her SUV 170 miles from Inchelium, Washington, to Pullman.
      After working four years to earn her bachelor’s in human development, she wasn’t about to let the weather keep her away from commencement festivities. “I want to be a role model for my kids,” she said of Isaac, 9, Almeta, 5, and Sadie, 3. “I wanted them to see that I could graduate. If they see I did it, then they’ll know they can do it too.”
      Now they’ve not only seen her graduate, but they’ve also seen her degree pay off. More... She’s landed a new job as a counselor for Colville Confederated Tribes Vocational Rehabilitation Program. “I provide guidance and counseling to individuals with diagnosable disabilities so they can gain or maintain employment,” she said. “The majority of my clients are sincerely trying to do great things with their lives, so it is really rewarding to help them.”
      Valerie, 31, grew up on the Colville Indian Reservation. She left high school at 16 and got a job at the Burger King in Omak. After earning her GED, she started working for the tribal casino in Okanogan, a few miles south of Omak. She earned an associate’s degree from Wenatchee Valley College’s Omak campus, and worked as a family services specialist at Inchelium Head Start before starting her new post.
      She enrolled in DDP in 2004 – “just to try it out” – and discovered it was a good fit. “I was able to juggle work, children and school because of this program. I really liked the way it was laid out and it was easy to follow.”
      When the juggling got too intense, help was near. “My dad really pushed me though school,” she said. “Whenever I felt like throwing in the towel, he said, ‘Get your homework done and I’ll take the kids.’ ”
      Her instructors also cut her some slack. “If I found myself falling behind or struggling, I had some awesome professors,” she said. “As long as I let them know what was going on, they really worked with me.”
      Valerie is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, which includes the Arrow Lakes Nation, as well as the Methow, Okanogan, San Poil, Nespelem, Nez Perce, Palouse, Moses, Entiat, and Wenatchee tribes. Her great-aunt Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket) is known as the first Native American to write a novel (Cogewea, the Half-Blood, 1927). Her grandfather, Charlie Quintasket, fought to save tribal lands in the 1970s and worked for the re-establishment of the Sinixt (Arrow Lakes) Nation in British Columbia.
      Charlie Quintasket was fluent in Nselxcin, a dialect of Salish. (Quintasket means “Green Sky” in Nselxsin.) Valerie is learning her native language. “To really hear the words,” she said, “gives you a stronger outlook on how things were, how relationships were.”
      For example, the words “my” and “mine” are used infrequently in Nselxsin, reflecting the tribal culture’s lack of possessiveness. And while there are words for “excuse me” and “thank you,” there’s no word for “please,” which demonstrates a high regard for children, she said. “If a child wants a bite of food, the reaction is to make the child say ‘please.’ They are hungry, why make them beg? I teach my children manners, but don’t insist they beg.”
      Sure enough, at December’s party, Almeta didn’t say please when she asked if she could go play with Butch T. Cougar. By the time Almeta came back – “I held cougar, Mommy, I held cougar” – Isaac had fallen asleep on Valerie’s lap. Almeta slipped under her arm and into her embrace. The quartet played its final song (“One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story) as people zipped thick parkas over party clothes, pulled ski caps down to their eyebrows, and drifted toward the door. No one lingered. Tomorrow was a big day.

      This year's pre-commencement reception
is 4-6 p.m., Dec. 11. For information, please visit the ASWSU-DDP Web site.

-- By Richard H. Miller/Center for Distance and Professional Education

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