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
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
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
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.