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Resilience in action: Tressa Lange

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Environmental geography major Tressa Lange says she knew after her first course in the program, "Human geography," that she had made the right decision in declaring the major. That introduction to the field remains her favorite class as a Blugold.

When it comes to competing for academic opportunities, Blugolds more than hold their own.

For example, Tressa Lange, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduating senior with a double major in environmental geography and American Indian studies. In 2018 Lange earned a spot in one of the most competitive and prestigious undergraduate conservation scholarships in the country, the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program through the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Tressa Lange at White Mountains

For her 2018 Doris Duke Conservation Scholars internship, Tressa Lange spent six weeks of the three-month program conducting field research in California's White Mountain range, the ancestral home of the Indigenous Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone people.

“That field research internship took me to California for three months in the summer,” Lange says. “I was one of 20 students of color from across the country. It was the most impactful experience of my college career, and the network of people I met are still a support system to me.”

Dr. Karen Mumford, associate professor and program director of environmental studies at UW-Eau Claire, played a key role in Lange’s application process for the Duke internship, and emphasizes the integral role faculty serve in securing this type of unique student experience.

“Tressa worked with her faculty mentor in American Indian studies, Dr. Heather Ann Moody, and me to put together a strong application that reflected her abilities,” Mumford says. “Tressa developed her application and we helped with edits and assisted her preparation for an online interview. It was a real team effort, and we were thrilled when Tressa was accepted into this program.” 

Her work as a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar strengthened Lange’s interest in Indigenous ecological issues, knowledge essential to addressing critical issues of Indigenous access to healthy and culturally relevant foods, water protection and sovereignty.

A second out-of-classroom experience that Lange says had a tremendous impact on her academic path and her deepening passion for issues facing Indigenous people was a 2019 conference she attended with Moody.

The annual Seeds of Native Health Conference on Native American Nutrition took place in September of that year, and Lange presented a poster on her internship with the Menomonie Nation, a poster titled “Sustainable Development Institute Internship 2019: Application within the College of Menominee Nation’s Sustainability Development Institute.”

“Food sovereignty is something that I am extremely passionate about, and having the opportunity to present a poster at that conference was an amazing experience,” Lange says.

Stepping up to Indigenous leadership on campus

At a time when she scarcely had the time to assume new responsibilities as a student, Lange found herself in a new leadership role when a vacancy presented itself. She was asked to take over as Inter-Tribal Student Council president when an acting president suddenly stepped down at the start of a semester; she served three years in the role, and another two years as a member. 

Moody, faculty advisor for the council, admires the way Lange pushed aside her doubts and assumed the reins whole-heartedly.

Tressa Lange

Tressa Lange (right) and Inter-Tribal Student Council president Caroline Kernan on campus mall with one of the dresses from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Display on campus May 5-6.

“Although she was not fully prepared to take on the task, she didn't question and jumped right in,” Moody says. “She had amazing ideas and plans for the organization that have developed over the last few years. Although not the ITSC President currently, Red Dress Display project for missing and murdered Indigenous women that was recently on our campus was one of her initiatives. The concept was important to her, and it was exciting to see it finally come to fruition. Tressa built a sense of community within the organization and always worked to include everyone.”

“The MMIW display on campus meant a lot to me,” Lange says. “It was heavy and sad, but necessary in raising awareness around this issue. The new ITSC president Caroline Kernan was able to build on an idea had years ago and make it all come to life. Attendance was good and many people took the time to walk through and read all the statistics.”

Deep gratitude for much needed support

Lange plans to pursue a Ph.D. in geography but remains uncertain of the exact specialty area she will choose. According to her faculty advisor, Dr. Ezra Zeitler, she could head in any direction she chooses in the field, especially one combining her vast understanding of Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

“The work that Tressa produced in each of the four courses she has taken with me has been ambitious, insightful and connected to her AIS and geography majors,” says Zeitler, professor and chair of the geography and anthropology department. “For instance, her research paper on tourism geographies focused on the displacement of Indigenous peoples in lands that became Glacier and Yosemite National Parks. She presented it through the framework of institutional racism, and documented how Indigenous nations in Wisconsin and elsewhere have asserted their sovereign right to develop and manage their own national parks.”

Lange’s immediate plans after commencement are to return to her hometown of Wabeno in the Green Bay area and spend time with her family while taking a break from the rigors of her studies.

It is when she thinks about her family that brings Lange the deepest sense of gratitude about any aspect of her years as a Blugold. When her family needed her to be home in the middle of her studies, she says Moody and Zeitler made it possible for her to remain enrolled at all, much less accomplish all that she did as a Blugold.  

“I have been extremely fortunate to have amazing professors and advisors throughout my time at UW-Eau Claire. Heather Ann Moody has been there for me and supported me in times where I did not think I could keep going on with college. She has always been an advocate for me throughout the last five years,” Lange says.

“Dr. Ezra Zeitler has also been an extreme help to me throughout college, always there to help me throughout my geography program. They both have worked with me through a family struggle and have been patient when I had responsibilities outside of college.”

Lange says that there was a period as a student when she needed to commute almost daily from her family home the eastern side of the state, three hours away.

“I was lucky enough to have professors who understood that my family came first and who worked with me to make sure I maintained my mental health, and was also able to pass my classes and get all of my work done,” Lange says.

Both faculty members say they are glad to have been able to provide the needed support, but that Lange has all the power within herself to be her own best advocate.

“Tressa’s perseverance guided her though personal challenges that few students contend with. Her poise and commitment to earning her degree is a reflection of her family, her friends and her community,” Zeitler says.

Moody, who says she sees Lange as family now, knows that everyone needs that person they know they can turn to for anything. She wants to be that person for the students who need her.

“I have always believed that students need someone on campus that they can turn to whenever ‘life happens.’ I have tried to be that person for Tressa,” she says. “I see her as family and when that relationship forms, it's a given that we will always be there for each other. Tressa has helped me as well, more than she knows.”

Wherever Lange resumes her studies and whatever specialty she decides to pursue as an Indigenous geographer, it is clear that she possesses an inner compass and a support network that will always keep her headed in the right direction.