I.The Future Engineer

The windswept prairie, canyons and peaks of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the neighboring Badlands form a landscape that is beautiful and foreboding. It can also feel isolating — few paved roads cross it, and most services are two hours away in Rapid City, South Dakota. For young people growing up on Pine Ridge, their future can seem determined from birth.

The legacy of generations of oppression of Native Americans lives on here. High rates of unemployment, substance abuse and adolescent suicide, as well as health issues such as diabetes, contribute to a life expectancy that exceeds only Haiti’s in the Western hemisphere. The percentage of adults who have a bachelor’s degree is 14 percent, half the national average. During the past seven years, the U.S. Department of Education has worked with the White House, other federal agencies, and state, local and tribal leaders to improve conditions and outcomes for Native American students, including those on Pine Ridge.

With the help of dedicated teachers, parents and community elders, some students are planting the seeds of a new history, pursuing education beyond high school and inspiring ambition and optimism among their peers. One such student is 18-year-old Justin Mesteth, who starts at Wesleyan University in Connecticut this fall with a goal of eventually returning to Pine Ridge to be a leader in his community.

This four-part series tells the story of his journey and the support from caring adults who helped him complete it.

This is Part I of IV. Read Part II, Part III, Part IV

In the space of three weeks during his junior year in high school, Justin Mesteth’s father entered a hospital 90 miles away from their home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and his grandfather and grandmother died suddenly.

His mother, who struggled with alcoholism, had abandoned the family by the time Justin was 6 years old. After his father, Gabe Mesteth, entered the hospital, the broad-shouldered 17-year-old lived with his aunt and cousins, but was mostly on his own. His father had only stepped on a tack but, due to complications and a lack of medical care, would remain bedridden for many months. “I had to depend on myself to do things, and that was kind of a big shock to me,” Justin says.

Justin faltered, briefly, in school. However, with the help of his teachers and counselors and the encouragement of his father, he regained his balance. He just completed a 1,700-mile road trip from his familiar rural community on the prairie, a place where he was steeped in Native traditions and culture, to the leafy campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he will be surrounded by peers and adults with little understanding of his roots.

But, ever since he was a child, Justin has been determined to write his own narrative, and he is confident that he will make it. “I don’t want to be one of those kids, stuck on the reservation without a future,” he says.

One source of his strength came from his father and grandparents. They taught him the traditional ways and to never forget the resilience and wisdom of his ancestors.

Another source was the support he received at Red Cloud High School, from which he graduated this past spring. Justin was captain of the football team and a standout in basketball, baseball, track and wrestling. However, he was first and foremost dedicated to his academic studies. His entire education at Wesleyan will be covered by scholarships and a federal Pell Grant.

Red Cloud, a Roman Catholic school run for generations by Jesuits in partnership with families on Pine Ridge, has a national reputation for sending talented, bright students to top-notch colleges. Justin enrolled at Red Cloud in the ninth grade, bringing with him a near-perfect academic record from his previous schools on the reservation.

Gabe Mesteth brims with pride in his son and his accomplishments. But Justin’s mother isn’t there to witness his success.

“She wanted to drink rather than be with her own child, and my father wasn’t going to let that be a part of my life at that time,” Justin says. She’s living in another state. Even if she came back, he says, he wouldn’t recognize her. “I haven’t seen her in like 10 years.”

Gabe Mesteth became a single parent and Justin’s greatest supporter. He told Justin from a young age that education was going to be his chance to experience a world beyond Pine Ridge and build a life for himself and then, his father hoped, come back and help his people. “That’s really what set the foundation for my future,” Justin says.

Justin was devastated when Gabe became incapacitated.

Another setback followed when Justin’s grandfather, Wilmer, a respected tribal elder, died. Justin was close to his grandfather, who in earlier years took him along on buffalo hunts and night dances, which are rites of passage for young Native American men. Wilmer also had liked to entertain Justin as a boy with stories of traditions that were rapidly fading.

Then a week after losing his grandfather, Justin’s grandmother, Lucille, who had lived with him and his father, died. That blow hurt the most.

“She showed me what it was like to feel a mother’s love,” Justin said. “Every single morning after I woke up she’d be sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, telling me good morning. After she died, she wasn’t sitting there and that’s when it really hit me, that I’m not going to be able to share any more memories or get advice from my grandmother.”

His teachers noticed a change in Justin — he racked up absences and failed to turn in homework. But his teachers wouldn’t let him fail. They kept on top of him to make sure he was on track with his college applications, pulling him aside and giving him pep talks. One suggested he apply to Wesleyan. That teacher, Dominique Fenton, flew to Connecticut to help him get settled.

“There were really a lot of times when I didn’t feel like growing up, I didn’t want to do anything anymore,” Justin says. “What really drove me to get back on my feet were my grandparents. They wouldn’t want to see me down like that.” That’s why he is dedicating his journey to college to them. “I am living out their legacy and must honor all the sacrifices they’ve made for me.”

At Wesleyan, he will aim to complete a five-year civil engineering program offered jointly with Dartmouth College. After graduation, he wants to return to work on fixing the reservation’s dilapidated buildings and pot-holed roads, which have been neglected for decades.

Former Red Cloud Principal Elma Brown recalls that when Justin received his early acceptance letter, “he was so ecstatic — he made 20 copies and handed them out to the teachers” to thank them for their help. His excitement was contagious. “Justin has made other seniors step up” and apply to more selective colleges, she says.

Inspiring others also motivates him. “I want a college education to prove to my people it can be done by anyone, even if you are financially limited,” he wrote in his successful application for a Gates Millennium Scholars scholarship. “It all starts at where a person’s head is. …Nothing is handed to you in this day and age. Everything you want you’re going to have to work for.”