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SDSU’s Big Eagle chosen as a Bush Fellow

Valeriah Big Eagle
Valeriah Big Eagle

Valeriah Big Eagle, a member of the South Dakota State University College of Nursing, has been chosen as one of 24 recipients for a prestigious Bush fellowship by the St. Paul, Minnesota-based foundation.

The 24 fellows hail from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography.

The Bush fellowship is an investment in individual leaders. It provides fellows with up to $100,000 over 12 to 24 months to pursue formal and informal learning experiences that help them develop the skills, attributes and relationships they need to become more effective, equitable leaders who can drive change in their communities and region as a whole.

Big Eagle becomes the first SDSU Bush Fellow since 2007, when Susan Baker received an award for an 18-month program to pursue a doctorate in nursing.

Big Eagle, originally of Lake Andes, is the diversity outreach and engagement coordinator with the college’s Rapid City site. She has held the position since March 2019. Previously, she served as student success adviser at Black Hills State University in Rapid City (July 2016-March 2019) and was a student affairs administration intern at Black Hills.

Big Eagle holds degrees in sociology (2014) and student affairs administration (master’s 2018) from SDSU and is projecting a spring 2021 completion of her doctorate in adult and higher education administration from the University of South Dakota.

Her goal is to become a university president.

Fellowship plans
Her Bush Fellowship plan includes completing her doctorate and using some of those funds in completing her dissertation. “I can use my funding to help with research and travel for research as well as helping with transcription and providing incentives for research participants,” Big Eagle said. Her dissertation topic is “How to Support Native American Students in Focusing on their Cultural Identity Development.”

“After I am done, I want to travel and meet with women of color who are university presidents because that’s what I want to do. I want their guidance in how do I get there, especially in institutional systems that have historically suppressed marginalized populations?

“Also, I want to travel to New Zealand to investigate Maori success in higher education and how they incorporate minorities into their education system and bring that knowledge back to SDSU so we can close that achievement gap with Native American students.”

Big Eagle hopes to present her doctoral research at professional conferences as well as use fellowship funds to attend conferences for educational administrators.

Better prepared in 2020
Nearly 750 people applied to be 2020 Bush Fellows. The 24 fellows were selected through a multistage process involving Bush fellowship alumni, Bush Foundation staff and established regional leaders. Applicants described their leadership vision and passion and how a Bush fellowship would help them think bigger and become more effective leaders, according to Bush Foundation Leadership Programs Director Anita Patel.

Big Eagle was a semifinalist in 2018.

She believes she was a stronger candidate this year because of the confidence she has gained through the encouragement she has received. In working with SDSU faculty and administration, she became bold enough to say she wanted to become a university president. She added she had an epiphany when she shared the ambition with SDSU president Barry Dunn.

“He said, ‘You know, you can do it.’ It was a boost of confidence. Once I realized I had that support, I began to believe I could lead at that higher level.”

“Valeriah is a valuable member of the College of Nursing and is highly regarded by faculty and students. Honestly, I was not surprised when I learned of this honor because I cannot think of anyone in our community who is more well-deserving,” said Mary Anne Krogh, ’85/’11 Ph.D., dean of the College of Nursing.

Christina Plemmons, an assistant dean at the college's Rapid City site, said, "Val’s commitment to excellence, leadership development and self-reflection is evident in all she does for College of Nursing student programs and the many communities she serves. This isn’t the first time she has been recognized for her passion for leadership and surely won’t be the last."

Dad in her corner
Growing up on the Yankton Indian Reservation in Charles Mix County, Big Eagle said she endured “traumatic experiences as a child, but hard times, those experiences make you resilient and stronger.”

She added, “The one person that was always in my corner was my dad (Kevin Vasek). He was a single father and instilled in me that I needed to be a hard worker, driven and stand up for yourself. The Native culture is to be quiet. To be more vocal isn’t considered respectful.

“He made me feel like I could do anything. I wanted to be a positive role model in my family.”

Big Eagle was a participant in Upward Bound all four years of high school and was valedictorian of Marty Indian School on the Yankton Sioux Reservation.

Today, she feels the support of that community. “They let me know how proud of me they are. With the support of my community and family, I feel like I can make real change in the Native community and inspire others.”

In conversing with elders and family members, she learned she and another woman are the only female Ihanktonwan (Yankton Sioux) to pursue a doctoral degree.

Success inspires others
Big Eagle, a first-generation college student, hopes to use the advanced degree to “inspire others in my community and other Native communities as well as help others understand the impact of historical trauma. I want to strengthen cultural identify in our communities and make them strong again. Our Oceti Sakowin once was a great nation; we can be great again.”

Her role with the College of Nursing extends beyond being an academic advisor to be an encourager at all levels, to be like an extended family member, she said.

She proudly recounts the story of a single mother with five children completing her degree this May. “We have these struggles that we’ve gone through. In order to help our families and communities, we need to seek that education so we have knowledge to bring back to communities. Now maybe her children will consider a college education.”