A rare, amazing thing

Mary Beth Mazilo | Native Alaskan | 2003-2007

When Mary Beth was growing up, her dad's biggest fear was that she would get pregnant before she had a chance to experience life beyond their isolated community where opportunities were limited. Dillingham, Alaska – the salmon capital of the world – had a population of two thousand people, and most everyone depended on the commercial fishing industry for income. In high school, Mary worked every summer making gear. Fishermen tend to be superstitious – they insist on certain measurements, particular colors. Mary hung nets, tied buoys to cork so that they’d float, attached the buoys to a web and attached the web to a lead line so that it would sink and catch fish. Manual labor. Mary recognized that the only way out of Dillingham was education. A lot of women got stuck. Mary had friends in high school who had babies – she once walked into the locker room after basketball practice and heard an unfamiliar, loud sucking sound – it was a teammate's breast pump. Mary’s own biological mom was already a young, single mother of two when she got pregnant with Mary and understood the struggle to meet the demands of an infant. Mary was adopted by her mom’s cousin, Mark, and his wife, Gloria.

Gloria and Mark had two kids of their own, and adopted two more kids from different sides of Mark’s family. Their biological daughter was born with cerebral palsy, and died when Mary was four. Then, ten years later, Mark and Gloria’s biological son died in a car accident.

“They could have been left with nothing, but for some reason they adopted two,” Mary said. “I think about myself, and if I would have been a teen mom, what I would have done in those circumstances. But somehow I managed to happen. And I was so eager to see the world.”

Mark was of the generation of Native Alaskans sent off to boarding school – he spent high school at a residential school in Oregon. He stayed away from home all year, and then he went to college, and met his wife. The two of them started a family and moved back to Alaska, where he worked as a minister and educator (first a teacher, then principal and eventually the superintendent for the district).

“The two major pillars of colonialism, right?” Mary said, laughing. “But religion and education are foundational to who my dad is.”

Because her dad had attended college and was a teacher and her elementary school principal, Mary was raised believing she’d one day achieve a higher education. All through high school, she operated with that goal in mind. She participated in as many extracurriculars as possible – sports, student government, anything to build her resume. Her junior summer, she was accepted to a program called the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks – a six-week college prep program where she met a student counselor Cara Wallace who, at the time, attended a school called Dartmouth. It was Cara Wallace who had told RAHI participants about the Dartmouth Native American Studies Fly-In Program. Mary eagerly applied and was accepted and invited to visit the campus.

While on the east coast visiting Dartmouth, Mary’s Dad put her in touch with some close friends in Boston who helped her visit other colleges in the northeast. She was infatuated with New York City – a place so opposite from the world where she grew up. But when it came down to choosing a college, she opted for Dartmouth because, with just a few thousand students and the NAD community, she found it more personable.

Even after submitting college apps, she worked hard up until the very end of high school. She graduated a semester early, with enough time to participate in a six-month exchange program in Brazil. She found the program herself, applied, worked (hanging nets in the summer and at the grocery store throughout the non-finishing seasons), and raised additional money to afford the trip. She took orders for holiday cookies (which she baked, packaged, and delivered) at Christmas, she organized a Valentine's Date Night fundraiser – which included dinner and a local talent show. She asked her friends to perform, her family helped her make a giant vat of spaghetti, and she sold tickets to members of the community. She told everyone she wanted to go on this exchange program, and her community showed up to support her.

“I’m grateful for [my hometown],” Mary said. “I couldn't have gotten to be an exchange student if the community hadn’t rallied behind me and helped me get there.”

Before Mary left Dillingham, she wasn’t aware of things like wealth disparities. No one, including her family, had money in her town, or  luxuries like running water in their home. And when everyone is surviving with the same standards, nothing seems out of the norm. But in Brazil, her host family was wealthy, and had people who lived in their house who were referred to as “the help.”  And later, at Dartmouth, many of Mary’s classmates were wealthy. Her freshman year, Mary noticed that every girl on campus was wearing the same jeans. When she looked them up – thinking maybe she might need to get a pair – she learned that they were called 7 jeans, and they cost two hundred dollars per pair. And later in college, when she visited her then-boyfriend and his family in London, he took her to a restaurant where he ordered crab. With the crab, the waiter brought out a small bowl filled with a liquid – butter, she assumed. But when Mary dipped her crab in the bowl, her boyfriend burst out laughing. She’d dipped her crab in the finger bowl. She felt mortified to the point of tears.

She is still grateful to a woman who worked in the financial aid office – Nancy, for helping to make sure Mary could afford to come back to school quarter after quarter. And she didn’t rush a sorority, because she couldn’t afford the dues, and she couldn’t afford to spend her time cleaning up after people in the house.

Her freshman year, Mary spent her energy trying to conform, trying to figure out her space, how she fit in with the people around her – the people who study Latin or have trust funds or own summer homes or use finger bowls. She didn’t spend a lot of time with the NADs at first, she lived in the River Dorms, and the NAD house was so far away. And she didn’t feel that she completely identified with the NADs that were there, since Native Alaskan culture is so different from mainland tribes who have dances and powwows and practices that, in a way, dominate the cultural scene at the NAD house.

Mary didn’t struggle with being away from home so much as she struggled to ask for help. When she first arrived on campus, she tried to schedule a meeting with her advisor, who wasn’t available.

“Then I was just kind of like, Who am I supposed to go to? And then I was like, Okay, well, I guess this isn’t a thing. And so I didn’t really pursue it,” Mary said. “At that point, I should have set up time with my dean or something, to be like, Hey, I’m new here. I’m not really comfortable. And I don’t really know why, and ask, What can I do to not feel so out of place.”

Eventually, Mary made friends with a few NAD girls with whom she connected. She started visiting the NAD house more often and realized that she had more in common with the NADs than she had originally thought. She made it through to graduation by reminding herself that Dartmouth is an opportunity a lot of people never get. She also reminded herself that even if not in every class she produced her proudest results, she should be proud of having finished it.

“There were kids who didn’t make it,” Mary said. “You watch them spiral, and you can’t even really help them. So, [I was] just trying to be humble and recognizing that [a Dartmouth education] is such a rare, amazing thing.”

Now, Mary conducts Alumni interviews, and works hard in those interviews to bring diversity of culture and experience to Dartmouth.

“I’m kind of harsh, because it’s such a tough place,” Mary said. “There’s such a need for more perspectives, right? Great. You’re a smart kid, you went to private school in the city, you’re the head of the chess club. I always ask, What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to experience? And you tell me you’re a night person? You procrastinate? Try again. Really, this is the biggest challenge you have to overcome? This story does not resonate.”

Mary recently interviewed one girl whom she adored – a black girl from Tennessee. She was raised by a single mom in the south and she wanted to be a doctor. The hardest thing she had to overcome at the age of seventeen was confronting segregation at her high school.

“I believed her, and I wrote an outstanding review for her because Dartmouth needs people like [her],” Mary said. “[She] is not going to fit in, it’s going to feel awkward, it’s going to be really hard. Pre-med is really hard, especially at a place like Dartmouth where those classes are awful and the objective is just to weed the pool down. But they need people like [her]. They need to let in more people of color, especially women of color. She ended up getting waitlisted, and I called the admissions office and spoke on [her] behalf. My passion is pushing along opportunities for everybody.”

Mary lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and her young son. She recently took her family to visit Dillingham for the first time, where they stayed with Mary’s aunt, since her parents have long since moved to Anchorage. Mary’s husband was excited to catch a King Salmon, but Mary knew it was too late in the season. Once it hits mating season, they don’t care about food. Being a fatty fish, they don’t even have to eat during mating season, they just metabolize the fat that’s stored in their bodies. They’ll swim right past a lure on their way upstream.

When she first graduated from Dartmouth, she thought she wanted to be a lawyer and work in tribal law. She moved to D.C. and worked for Congressman Young of Alaska.

“When you’re in these places like Washington, DC, where it’s all marble and mostly white people – and there’s nothing against white people, my mom’s white, it’s cool – but it’s not your turf. And you don’t see yourself in these people,” Mary said.

The biggest thing she learned during her time in DC, besides that she didn’t want to be a lawyer, was to appreciate something called “economic empowerment.”

“It’s helpful if you can generate revenue, to take care of yourself,” Mary said. “There’s something to be said about the pride you develop, when you can do that for yourself.”

In New York, Mary works in finance, and she is the only Native Alaskan woman at her company. She works in human resources developing talent strategies and encourages her company to hire women and people of color.

“It's not as targeted or as focused as what I thought I wanted to do,” Mary said, meaning she doesn’t work specifically for the benefit of her community. “And I'm perfectly comfortable with it. It's a hard, fine line, balancing your identity and, almost like a sense of responsibility.”

Mary is grateful for her experience at Dartmouth because it was difficult. It was uncomfortable, she got lost, and she had to find her way back. It’s hard being an intelligent person, it’s hard to be an intelligent woman, and it’s harder still to be an intelligent woman of color. Having the Dartmouth name on her resume has opened doors for her and the journey continues to make her stronger.