Back to Episode # 20

Intro  00:00
Life After Now.


Liz Bolsoni  00:07
Hello, and welcome to the Life After Now podcast. I'm your host Liz Bolsoni. I'm a communication studies major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education, and think about what it means for your life after now. You'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have firsthand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. I did want to take a moment to acknowledge that we are meeting in the traditional lands of the Ojibwe and Dakota peoples. We recognize their continued connection to the land, water and community, and pay respects to elder's past and emerging. To find out more about the history and importance of this land, please see the resources linked in the show notes. With that I'd like to introduce a very special guest for today, Lara Gerhardson is the Outreach Liaison for the Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program. Thanks so much for joining me today, Lara.


Lara Gerhardson  01:06
Miigwech. Lara niindizhinikaaz. My name is Lara, and I'm very happy to be here today.

Liz Bolsoni  01:11
So first, can you take a moment to introduce the work that you do with MISP and introduce yourself a little bit more to our listeners?


Lara Gerhardson  01:20
Sure, I have been with the state of Minnesota's Office of Higher Education as the outreach Liaison for the Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program for over 12 years now. And it's just been a really rewarding experience working with students both in high school and in postsecondary and even graduate students as they navigate their way through the application process in high school and all the way through their undergraduate and graduate careers.


Liz Bolsoni  01:48
Great. And before we dive in, I'd like you to take a moment and reflect on your high school self. If you have any words of affirmation or advice to high school Lara, what would you say?


Lara Gerhardson  01:57
So I loved High School. However, I was hyper focused on the next step, which was going to college. And so I would tell myself to enjoy my time a little bit more while remaining focused on my goals. But one thing that I think that really would have benefited me to know when I was a high school senior is that it becomes overwhelming when you start to look at all of the college applications, essays, all of the information you have to get together along with your financial aid information. And I procrastinated and procrastinated and procrastinated. And I would tell myself, it's just going to make it more stressful if you continue to procrastinate. So just chip it out, get a little bit at a time done so that you don't get stressed out later on.


Liz Bolsoni  02:44
Yeah, that's great, great advice. From my experience, say that too. And jumping off of that, if you could walk us through a little bit of your journey with education. And you know, did you always know you wanted to go to Harvard or even somewhere far away from your home?


Lara Gerhardson  02:57
Well, that's an interesting question about my journey, because I would say that my educational journey began even before I was born. So my family put a high premium on education, and higher education in particular. And I just, I was raised with a lot of very strong women who never asked me, "Are you going to college?" or "If I was going to college?" but "Where are you going to college?" So at a very young age, I started saying Harvard, I think just because it was the college that I heard of as being the place to go to. So probably third or fourth grader started saying Harvard even though I didn't necessarily know where it was, or how far away it was, or what it entailed. But my mom, prior to my birth, had even set up a library for me that had all of the classics of literature starting out with Dr. Seuss, and the younger Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary type books, all the way to Moby Dick and Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. And so when I was growing up, I always had that library to look at and kind of always have something to aspire to. I couldn't read all those books yet, but I knew that if I continued to study and learn that I would get towards that. So I think that my educational journey has always been one of setting something aspirational ahead of me so that I had something to work towards.


Liz Bolsoni  04:19
So you spoke a little bit about your family history with education. And if you could just speak to your indigenous perspective, as a woman who was educated here in Minnesota, and how you think that education affects Native students in the state.


Lara Gerhardson  04:33
Well, I feel that I was really lucky to have educational role models to look up to. My mom was a state education director and my aunt was a physician. My other aunt works in education with the Johnson-O'Malley programs. And we just had wonderful role models to look up to. And so I would say that what I see is that when Native students are able to see others, that they can then say, that person went on to school, you know, post high school, attain their goals and was able to give back to the community. I think that makes a real difference. because historically, Native peoples have a complicated relationship with education. As we've seen in some of the most recent news, there has been abuse associated with education in a lot of different ways. However, when we take our own agency and look at education as something to benefit us, and to benefit our communities, I feel that it is entirely important and instrumental way of giving back is to show yourself as a mentor, as an example, that we can be in so many different fields and make such an impact. And so each subsequent generation that's able to look up to others that have carved their own path, made their own way, and found their individual and personal success, I think is incredibly important.


Liz Bolsoni  05:59
You know, and going forward now to your college experience, as you're applying for college, what were some challenges you face and what did you do to overcome them.


Lara Gerhardson  06:09
So when I was applying to college, as I said, I started saying that I wanted to go to Harvard at a very young age. And so I just, I took every Advanced Placement class I could take. I did everything that I thought was, you know, necessary to get towards that goal: making sure to be involved in extracurriculars, I stayed at the top of my class for most of the years, I was in school -- very competitive class -- but, but I did everything to keep my GPA above 4.0., because I felt like that was what I needed to do. However, I won't say that it didn't come without some obstacles, and people trying to dissuade me. I even had a high school counselor, tell me, "You're not going to get into Harvard. So you better just start taking, you know, some clerical classes, because that's all you can aspire to." I think that for some people, that's a very fulfilling work, and I would never say don't take those classes, because my keyboarding classes did come in handy. But don't let anyone discourage you because of being female, being Native, or a person of color, because it is in our abilities and our, our dreams for our communities to give back. And so don't let anyone tell you, you can't do those things. And even if it's a high school counselor, like it came with me, make sure that you stay true to yourself into your goals.


Liz Bolsoni  07:32
And so even with coming out of high school, you get into Harvard -- you proved that counselor wrong -- but there are people in college who still don't believe in you and who still hold some of those negative misconceptions. So what was your experience like going into college? And how did you, how did you reflect on that? How did you deal with it?


Lara Gerhardson  07:53
So I would say that I grew up in a small northern Minnesota community and and there was a lot of racism a negative connotations to being a native person in our area. I have kind of physically, I'm ambiguous in terms of if you looked at me, you wouldn't know for sure. When I'm with native people, they assume I'm native, when I'm with non-native people, they assume I'm whatever group I'm in. And so in high school, my experience was that if my non-native friends, my white friends assumed I was just white, I heard a lot of things that were difficult to hear. And I would have to point them out and say, "You know, I'm native." And some of the things that I heard at that point, well, were "While you're one of the good ones," or something, you know, something to that effect, which was so incredibly hurtful and wrong. Even when I made it into Harvard, one of my good friends in my, in my close friendship circle, said, "Well, she only made it into Harvard, because she was an Indian." Even though I had worked incredibly hard. And I was the top of my class, I still faced that even from my own friendship group. So that was a community I was used to being a part of, is kind of straddling this line of having to let people know that, you know, that is not why I made it into Harvard. I worked really hard. I didn't just get into Harvard, because I was Native. I had to help people learn about diversity at that time. Now, what was different was that when I went to Harvard, I was embraced because it's an incredibly diverse and dynamic group of people. And so I felt even more supported at that time, because I was meeting all kinds of different people from all different walks of life. And so it became somewhat easier once I got into college, because you're just surrounded by people who are there to learn, learn about each other, learn about whatever their field is, but I would say a lot of the learning takes place outside of the classroom. So that was my experience.


Liz Bolsoni  09:58
Yeah, you know, it's a reoccurring theme in these interviews, that underrepresented students often feel they need to prove themselves in a way that the other students do not have to. And that's something that a lot of people I've spoken to -- and I really appreciate your your words -- that that's just not the case, you, you know, you're enough because of that.


Lara Gerhardson  10:18
You know, I was very confident because I knew what I had to offer. And I knew how I worked. And like I said, I had a very contentious experience in high school, and in several different instances. However, I felt embrace going into a community like Harvard that was accepting of so many different people.


Liz Bolsoni  10:38
Once you applyed and got into college, what did paying for college look like? And do you have any information about loans? Or [for] people who are worried about that they're going to be a huge burden, do you have any advice on that?


Lara Gerhardson  10:52
So at the time that I went to Harvard, they did not offer the same kind of financial aid that they do now. So now they have financial aid that's based on the need of the student, and they have different scholarships that were not available when I went there. So my financial aid picture at the time was a combination of my mom's support, my mom's financial support, and loans. So loans can be very intimidating for a lot of people, just because you know that you're going to have that financial burden after you graduate. However, I just see loans as being an investment in your future and in your, you know, your education as part of that future. So the loans for me were unnecessary burden at the time. And the thing that was, I think, exceptionally fortunate for me, it was that my mom, unbeknownst to me, was paying off the interest of the loans while I was in school. So I would say if anybody has that opportunity to either use their own -- you know, I also did work study in the summer -- use their own funds to pay for some of that interest. Or if they have parents that are willing to pay for that interest, it does really make a difference once you get out of school, to only have to pay the initial loan rather than the interest as well. But like I said, it is daunting to take out that much money in loans. But if you don't have to take them, don't take them. But if you do, just recognize it as a part of your investment in yourself.


Liz Bolsoni  12:20
So you know, you came back to Minnesota to work in your your hometown, home area. After living away working away, what made you come back? And why do you do the work you're doing now?


Lara Gerhardson  12:34
Even though I love my experiences, and Massachusetts and in California, and I love the work that I did there and the education I got in those places, my family is here, my community is here, I have roots here in Minnesota. So it was really important to me not only to come back because my family and my roots were here, but also to help my Native community. As I talked about, I went through a lot of different major changes in college, as in changing my major, I also went through a lot of changes in terms of what I thought my ultimate career path was going to be. And so I finally just kind of had to sit with that and think about what my strengths were, think about what I wanted to do. And fundamentally, it boiled down to a few things. I wanted to work in Native communities, with Native students and be a part of that in the best way that I could be. I wanted to work in creative paths and storytelling. And I just wanted to make sure that I was surrounded by my family as well. So even though I told them when I went away to college, I'll be back. I told them, I'll be coming back. Nobody believed me because they thought as soon as Lara gets a taste of the big cities, she's not going to come back home. But it was so important to me to be able to make a difference in the community that raised me. So that's what brought me back to Minnesota. And I'm so happy I did, because I'm afforded the opportunities here that those bigger cities weren't able to provide for me, just because I can work in a number of different interests. I continue to playwrite work on independent film, work in different artistic you know, ventures, but also I can work with education as I did with that mentorship program that I talked about, and also with the Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program. They all provide different parts of vitality for me and for my life. And so I'm just really happy that I'm able to combine all those interests in my hometown.


Liz Bolsoni  14:39
And you know, as you work with students in your community now, who have experienced so many challenges in the past year to endure and continue through education, what do you hope life after now looks like for the students who work with and students across the state of Minnesota.


Lara Gerhardson  14:58
I am just, first of all, I would just applaud the students who, who persevered and made it through this year. And also, I would applaud the students who knew that it was time for them to take a step back and wait until everything was in a place that made it comfortable for them to return to school. And so I just hope that going forward, students recognize that their education is important not only to themselves, but to their community. I know that it is incredibly important for students to look up to a diverse group of people in a diverse number of professions so that they can see themselves as they're moving forward and have something to aspire to, have mentors in front of them and then become mentors, because that's the way we educate ourselves. We become a great force of intellect and, and interest and helpfulness to our communities. So I think that, that's what I hope for in the future is that when I hear back from students who get the Minnesota Indian scholarship, they talk a lot about how they're going to come back and return to their communities and make a difference. And that is, the way we will succeed, is by making a difference in our communities and providing another mentor for the young folks. So I'm just really excited to see that and I just, like I said, I just applaud all of the students this year, for taking the time to, to learn, learn a lot of new paths.


Liz Bolsoni  16:31
I second that we celebrate just the little things right now.


Lara Gerhardson  16:35


Liz Bolsoni  16:36
And also the big things, so congratulations to everyone that graduated. And also congratulations, everyone who's still working towards that.


Lara Gerhardson  16:43
And celebrate yourself. I think that's so important because -- celebrate yourself and celebrate others when you see their successes, because I don't know how many times I've had a student contact me and say, you know, I asked them "How they're doing, how is your year going?" And they say, "Well, I'm doing okay." And the tone of their voice leads me to believe that they're, they're having some challenges. And then they tell me, they're on the Dean's list, because their humility stops them from saying, "I'm doing really good." And so I just, I get so excited when I hear that. And I really want to make sure that the students know that we're as excited for their success, and they should be too.


Liz Bolsoni  17:22
Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing a little bit about your story, those those kind words and your words of wisdom that we got to hear today. So I appreciate your time. Chi Miigwech. Thank you very much. Before we end here, I just want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today. This podcast is brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. I encourage you to dig into the resources mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes on our website at Make sure to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time, everyone I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future.

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