Shawn Attakai worked hard on his college applications. He was in good academic standing and had a well built resume – he typed and printed his college essays, spent time organizing his portfolio, mailed it out early to some of the state schools. He was in high school in Flagstaff, Arizona – a border town to the Navajo reservation. He stayed in a Bureau of Indian Affairs dorm surrounded by other Navajo boys from the rez. Most of the boys there primarily spoke the Navajo language, many of them came from impoverished or low income families. Shawn, like most of the other college-bound boys from his highschool, planned to attend college nearby. But the counselor at his school kept nagging him. She wanted him to apply to some school he’d never heard of. Dartmouth. Eventually, just to get her off his back about it, he did apply. He threw the application together any which way – handwritten, hastily done. It wasn’t his goal to go to Dartmouth, he didn’t think he could go to Dartmouth. Besides, he didn’t know much about the world outside of the reservation, let alone out of the state, out of the region.
“When I got the acceptance letter, it really freaked me out. I got really scared,” Shawn said. Shawn was to be a first generation college student, and is a second generation English speaker. His parents were the first in his family to have a formal K-12 education. “Then I knew that, just based on how people talk about [Dartmouth], it was kind of the best option, a no brainer. Everyone wanted to go there. So that’s what I did.”
In the year 1991, Native students had the highest college dropout rate in the country. (FIND SOURCE LOL). Shawn’s family and friends didn’t really expect him to graduate from Dartmouth.
“My mother, she told me several times, ‘If you don’t think you’re gonna make it, just come back. That’s okay.’ She said that,” Shawn said. “I guess that was the expectation. For myself, I also thought, I don’t know if I'm gonna make it or not. I don’t know. And I’m okay with that. I got accepted and I tried.”
His summer after graduating high school, Shawn got a job at a pizza place. He challenged himself to work every single day, seven days a week, for the whole summer. He thought if he could do that – show up every day for ten weeks straight – he could do Dartmouth. So that’s what he did. He gave that job everything, just so he could prove that he could. When he got to Dartmouth, he gave it everything, too. Just like he’d practiced. He finished his first term at Dartmouth with two B’s and one A.
“At that point, that’s when I realized I’m able to do it,” Shawn said.
His first year at Dartmouth was the hardest. The transition from living alongside the boys he grew up with to living alongside people who “were groomed in order to go to these schools,” was disorienting, to say the least.
There was a stand outside of the gym one day when Shawn was on his way to play basketball with his friends. The students manning the stand called him over, offered him a free T-shirt. To Shawn, a T-shirt was a T-shirt. It was useful. It was something to wear. It didn’t matter that there was an Indian head symbol printed on the front. He didn’t know the implications of that symbol, or the history of it. He started wearing it around campus. When he wore it to a meeting at the NAD house, they explained to him the conflict surrounding the Indian mascot. He didn’t wear the shirt again after that.
The summer after his freshman year, Shawn took Navajo language classes at his local college back home. Dartmouth allowed him to use those classes to satisfy his foreign language requirement.
“I found that so ironic,” Shawn said. “My first language was Navajo and English was my second language. That’s another reason why I had a hard time transitioning – culture shock and all. Why am I learning a forein language? For me, English is a foreign language. I flipped it around and said, If I'm required to learn another language I already know another language.”
Shawn thinks he must have become very depressed his first year. He started drinking heavily, partying too hard at the fraternities. A few times he blacked out, which he felt extremely uncomfortable about. But all through this, he never had doubts about finishing his degree.
“I always kind of thought, go forward and don’t think bad. Be positive,” Shawn said. “At the same time I was getting into some risky behavior. And I was going through this change I myself did not recognize.”
But someone recognized the path Shawn was going down. His junior year, NAP director Colleen Larimore shared with Shawn the Full Circle program. The purpose of the program was to help students struggling with culture shock – it was a program Colleen started in an attempt to improve the retention rates of Native students at Dartmouth. And the program must have worked very well; at the time, Dartmouth College had the highest Native student retention rates of any college in the country.
Through the Full Circle program, Shawn applied for and received funding to revive the powwow drums. He bought new drumming supplies and repaired the drums. He also organized and executed a sweat lodge for the male NADs, for which he received the Charles Eastman Community Service award from the NAP upon graduation.
“[The sweat lodge] helped [with the culture shock],” Shawn said. “At that time, a lot of us didn’t know much about spirituality, we were just coming from high school. When we got to [doing the sweat], the main thing is that you connect with your spirituality.”
And to get him by academically, he followed his mom’s advice; she had always told him to “learn the letters and the numbers.” So, he started with engineering classes to learn the numbers, and took a few English classes to learn the letters. Eventually he decided, to avoid the financial burden of the fifth year engineering degree, to switch to an English major with an Engineering minor.
In 2015, twenty years after leaving Dartmouth, Shawn was laid off from his job as a tribal attorney.
“That’s when I thought to myself, What are my strengths?,” Shawn said. “I thought, Woah, I came from an Ivy League. I don’t really think about that.”
Shawn had always heard to utilize the benefits of the Dartmouth alumni network. So that’s what he did. During this bout of unemployment, he joined the Native American Alumni Association of Dartmouth. Now, Shawn is the co-president of the group.