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Prairie Ph.D. grad heads Oglala Lakota College

Dianne Rickerl, Dawn Frank and Barry Dunn

Dawn Tobacco-Frank, a graduate of South Dakota State University’s Prairie Ph.D. program in 2010 and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, now serves as president of Oglala Lakota College on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Tobacco-Frank was named to the position in May, began the duties July 18 and was inaugurated Sept. 2 with SDSU President Barry Dunn among those speaking.

She has been with Oglala Lakota College for 17 years, beginning as an education administration grant coordinator in the graduate department in March 2005. Shortly after she became chair of the graduate studies department, serving there until 2013, when she became vice president of instruction, a position she held until beginning as president.

Tobacco-Frank received her elementary and secondary education at Red Cloud Indian School. She earned associate and bachelor’s degrees, (1999 and 2001, respectively) in human services and a master’s degree (2004) in Lakota leadership, all at Oglala Lakota College.

Tobacco-Frank learned about a new Prairie Ph.D. program while she was a master’s student and a project director with Oglala Sioux Tribe.  She began course work the same time she was working on the final year of her master’s degree.

Prairie Ph.D. cohort begins in ’03

Prairie Ph.D. was an interdisciplinary graduate program for tribal colleges in South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska that SDSU created after talking to tribal college leaders, who wanted a graduate program for their faculty and staff, said Tim Nichols and Diane Rickerl, former SDSU faculty members instrumental in getting the program off the ground in 2003.

Tobacco-Frank was part of that cohort that started in 2003.

Rickerl, a professor in plant science and later associate dean of the graduate school, was Tobacco-Frank’s Ph.D. adviser. While Tobacco-Frank’s undergraduate schooling prepared her to be a counselor, her doctorate was in biological sciences. Nichols explained, “The biological sciences doctorate is very flexible for students to mix and match. We had students with a wide range of interests.”

The Prairie Ph.D. interdisciplinary approach included study in institutional leadership, economics and sociology.

Tobacco-Frank was interested in the harvesting techniques, cultural uses and nutritional value of secondary animals in the traditional Lakota diet. She began research on five identified animals, before focusing on  porcupines. She interviewed community elders.

“Throughout my research process, I was careful to follow Lakota culture and protocols in conducting the research. While doing that, my committee realized the research evolved into the creation of a research model using both the scientific and Lakota cultural methods.

“Through my experience as the chair of the OLC’s Institutional research and review board, I knew that the research process and methodology would be different for native people.

At the time, the school didn’t have a fully developed institutional review process. She set the requirements for members to include Lakota cultural knowledge and worldview and took it on to further develop the institutional review board at OLC.

Tobacco-Frank also served on the Oglala Sioux Tribe Research and Review Board until 2012.

Nichols said of Tobacco-Frank, “Dawn was just so well suited for leadership in tribal education, and her heart, her history are there in Pine Ridge. I knew Dawn was destined for great things.”

Program delivered with ample encouragement

Tobacco-Frank recalled the encouragement and emotional support Nichols and Rickerl provided to the cohort of 20 students; “Pushing us not to give up ... I can still remember a majority of the courses I had.”

The Prairie Ph.D. program wrapped up in 2011 and was rather a “time in place” program.

Tobacco-Frank is thankful she was in the right place at the right time.

“I’m thankful to SDSU for believing in the founders of the Prairie Ph.D. program. I’m thankful to the founders of the Prairie Ph.D. program, Tim and Laurie (Nichols) and Diane (Rickerl) and all the faculty members, for wanting us to succeed, for being committed and dedicated to helping our cohort succeed. It’s truly remarkable that they would go through that effort to help tribal colleges.”

Major focus: Graduation rate

Now that Tobacco-Frank is leading a tribal college, she said her biggest challenge is increasing the completion rate at Oglala Lakota College.

“Average graduation rate used to be 10 years; now it is eight years. We’d like to see it decrease by 2% per year. A lot of our students are nontraditional adult learners whose primary responsibility is taking care of their family … The average student profile used to be an adult female with three children.

“Now the age range is decreasing but working with our population to help them be successful in a timely manner is going to be our challenge,” Tobacco-Frank said.

Oglala Lakota College has nine college centers on the Pine Ridge Reservation plus one in Rapid City and one in Cheyenne-Eagle Butte with 64 full-time faculty members and a fall enrollment of 1,278 students.

Students persistent, campus gains new look

Tobacco-Frank explained, “The No. 1 responsibility of our students is taking care of their families. Personal needs are No. 1 over education. It’s family, health, job and then education. They don’t give up. They know they want that degree. They know what their goals are. No matter how long it takes, they are going to achieve it.”

Tobacco-Frank cited the case of a student who started classes in 1976 and completed his degree in 2016. “We don’t have a dropout problem. We have a stop-out problem,” she said.

The focus of her inaugural year is the fall multilocation site visit and the 2023-24 comprehensive visit by the Higher Learning Commission, which is the accreditation body.

Tobacco-Frank said she has seen continuous improvement at Oglala Lakota College, particularly since 1989, when she took her first class in a log cabin at Pine Ridge. The college dates to 1971. The main administrative center is seven miles southwest of Kyle. Each college center has a building with a small library, a kitchenette, distance learning classrooms and computer labs

Oglala Lakota College also provides a variety of student support services, including transportation, an online bookstore, on-demand tutoring, TRIO services and a multipurpose building plus single-family housing units at the Kyle and Pine Ridge centers.

“A lot of the full-time faculty members are coming back, and they are Native, including grad students. We need more of our people to gain master’s and doctoral degrees and return to help the college and community. We want to create more educational opportunities for our people to be successful in their lives and in our communities and tribal programs.”

“We want to stay true to our vision which is to rebuild the Lakota nation through education by further enhancing our culture and language opportunities for our students  to make sure that OLC is putting forth that will make an positive impact in their own lives and the communities and the Tribe.”