Editor's note: Since this story was first published in 2015, Taylor Younkle has graduated, but still attends this annual immersion as a chaperone.
We encourage all Blugolds to take advantage of the many opportunities for cultural immersion experiences offered by the departments. For the 2015-16 class, 36 percent participated in an immersion program prior to graduation. One current senior is going to up that percentage for her graduating class for sure, since she decided to do three immersion programs. Actually it was the same program three times — it was that impactful for her.
Senior special education major and American Indian Studies minor Taylor Younkle, second from the left in the above image, took part three times in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation program, sponsored by the American Indian Studies Program. This trip, open to all majors, provided a chance for a small group of 10-12 students each summer to immerse themselves in the Lakota culture, learning about the history and traditions of the people, as well as the many challenges facing those living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation today.
"I went the first time on the trip as a student, and repeated a second time as a student mentor. I just couldn't stay away for the third time, and spent my own money to attend once again. It's hard to put into words what the trip actually means to me—it's an incredible experience that I am very grateful to have been able to take part," Younkle explained.
Because some of the realities of life on the reservation are hard for students to process, the student mentors provided an experienced sounding board for emotions. Trip coordinator Heather Moody points out that even social work and American Indian Studies majors who have learned in class all the situations they will likely face at Pine Ridge, it is different to see it first-hand.
Each time the program ran, this service-based immersion was assisted by a local coordinator in finding organizations in need of help and improvements. Younkle's observation over her three years was a consistency in the immediate and visible impact their efforts were able to show. With one-day projects like landscape improvements, painting hallways and a cafe at a youth center, it was nice to see those improvements and fell the pride of those accomplishments.
One improvement the Blugolds were able to make for an organization sticks with Younkle as one of the most impactful efforts they made in her three years.
"The woman who runs the boys and girls club asked us to help her out with yard work. With the money that we raised over our year of fundraising, we were able to buy gardening tools and a lawn mower. The club had a skate park for the local kids, but it was overrun by tall grasses. Once the lawnmower was put together, one of our students mowed down the field and within hours there were children playing at the skate park," Younkle said.
Similarly, the students were able to apply their fundraising efforts to a different immediate need at the BEAR Program, (Be Excited About Reading), where their cash donation was enough to pay the auto insurance premium for the director, who was then able to resume her driving through the large reservation to pick up the kids in need of a ride to the program.
"It was incredible for us to be able to do that for such an amazing woman who gives everything of herself to the youth out there in Pine Ridge," Younkle said.
It's important to clarify that not any group who wants to go help is able to gain access to the Pine Reservation, its people and organizations. UW-Eau Claire has established a reputation at Pine Ridge for bringing well organized and informed students, respectful visitors who are very knowledgeable of the culture. This point was not lost on Younkle, who has a deep appreciation for the people.
"The most amazing thing to see, in my opinion, was the people we worked with sharing their stories with us. They not only shared the hardships of living on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but they shared their culture with us as well. You could see how sharing that helped them heal and I was honored to be able to listen to them speak," she said.