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Native Students Use Wolf-Fire Scholarship to Improve Community

Release Date: March 26, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When he was eight years old, Beynan Ransom protested with his parents at a General Motors plant that discharged waste into the St. Lawrence River near the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian Territory, three hours from Syracuse.

More than 10 years later, Ransom is still working to improve the Native American community across New York by working with the Onondaga Nation, this time on the removal of the Onondaga Creek dam. Now, his commitment is getting a boost from the University at Buffalo's Wolf-Fire Scholarship offered through the UB's Native American Center for Wellness Research.

The Wolf-Fire Scholarship will aid Ransom, a UB civil engineering graduate student, by paying for the cost of his weekly travel between Buffalo and Syracuse to conduct research. His scholarship is among those awarded to five UB Native American students who are focused on improving their communities.

"Having Native American youth obtain a college degree and continue to be involved within their communities benefits both the Native student and community," said David Patterson, PhD, director of UB's Native American Center for Wellness Research, who also heads the scholarship program.

Ransom is no stranger to the risks of toxic waste. Growing up on the Mohawk Territory exposed Ransom to the effects chemical waste can have on the environment. In the 1980s, scientists discovered that turtles in the community where he lived were so contaminated that the turtles themselves were considered toxic waste. A local elementary school even had to be moved because children developed rashes when playing outside.

In 2005, when Akwesasne received its first water treatment plant, Ransom worked as an intern for the construction of the plant. This was his inspiration to pursue an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Syracuse University.

"I was really fascinated by seeing the different equipment that went into the plant to give people safe drinking water that wouldn't give them rashes or any other problems," said Ransom. "I wanted to be able to design it."

Currently he is finishing his master's degree in civil engineering. Ransom's work on the Onondaga Creek dam, where as much as 10 tons of mercury has been found, is part of his master's thesis. Using hydrologic science and computer modeling, he will research the tradeoffs of removing the dam -- such as increased flooding that may cause property damage.

Ransom also aspires to become a teacher, and to go back to high schools to mentor young students. Over the years, he has been a volunteer teacher at public schools in Syracuse and Buffalo.

The other Wolf-Fire Scholarship recipients have equally impressive credentials and commitments. They are: Monty Hill, UB linguistics major, Joe Candillo and Aaron VanEvery, both in the American Studies PhD program, and Jessica Brant, a senior communications major.

Brant, from the Mohawk Nation, is president of the UB Native American People's Alliance (NAPA). Joining the club as a sophomore, Brant quickly rose through the ranks to become president, serving as public relations director and vice president along the way. She sought the group herself, with the intent of learning more about her culture. She was shocked at how much she learned about her Mohawk heritage over the years.

Brant plans to use the Wolf-Fire scholarship award as to help market NAPA and attract new members. Although there are close to 100 Native American students at UB, the club only has slightly more than 10 dedicated members. Brant understands that many students are busy, but believes that many Native American students do not join because they know little about their culture.

"A lot of Native students are not in touch with their heritage," said Brant. "It's okay, even if you don't know anything about yourself, come and learn."

In an article for the UB student newspaper, the Spectrum, Brant researched the dropout rates of Native American students. She discovered that 53 percent of Native Americans who enrolled at SUNY colleges failed to graduate with a bachelor's degree, according to the 2011 "SUNY Report Card." Brant and Ransom both attribute this statistic to Native students not being able to adjust to campus life or feeling like they don't fit in.

"It's a culture shock. Especially coming from the Akwesasne reservation, which takes a lot of pride in its culture and being Mohawk," said Ransom "It's a foundational part of who you are, but then you enter an environment where that means nothing."

Nationally, Native American students are among the top three ethnic groups to drop out of college. Brant believes that another major reason Native students fail to finish college is the lack of support systems. She hopes that NAPA can provide the support many students need.

Although this is Brant's final undergraduate semester here at UB, she hopes to come back and remain involved with the Chief Sagoyewatha Living and Learning Community that will open in UB's Red Jacket residence hall in the fall. The new community is open to any UB student living on campus and interested in learning about Native American issues.

Brant plans to return for the opening of the community, and also to help out with seminars, and discussions, and to stay in touch with the Native American students on campus. She would also love to eventually set up a scholarship program for Native students at UB.

Whether restoring the environment or educating students about the importance of culture, the Wolf-Fire scholarship recipients are all working to improve the Native American and University at Buffalo community, according to Patterson, an associate professor of social work in UB's School of Social Work.

"When students use their knowledge to improve their communities, everyone benefits," said Patterson.