Community in Competition


This year was the first year in my four years at a tribal college that I did not attend the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) spring conference. I didn’t attend this year because my schedule has been so packed that I needed to spend time for me and work on some other projects. But it had me thinking a lot about the AIHEC conference and everything it has given me these last years.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the AIHEC conference, it’s a meeting that brings students, faculty, and staff from our nation’s 37 tribal colleges and universities together for three days of student competitions. The competitions at this conference are designed around history, STEM, literature, the arts, and traditional practices. This year’s 2019 AIHEC student conference was held in Billings, Montana.

The first thing the AIHEC conference gave me was confidence. I was a freshman at the time back at my first AIHEC in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2016. I was nervous and still getting the hang of being away from home, and it was also the first time I was going up to the Midwest. I was also not one to compete, but my peers gave me the support I needed to feel like I could and when I got there that didn’t go away. Being at AIHEC gave me the confidence I needed to get out of my shell and put myself out there.

The second thing the AIHEC conference gave me was another sense of community. While my tribal college already does that on a smaller scale, because of this conference I’ve been able to connect with students in other regions who I would have never connected with otherwise. There are people who I’m still in contact with from other states because of this conference and I’ve been able to see them grow and become great versions of themselves. There are people who I’ve only met once and haven’t seen again. But even then, they were a part of my experience and memories which I will cherish.

The third thing this conference gave me was comradery. Trust me when I say that there is nothing more bonding than being on a bus for 24+ hours, competing for three days at the conference, and then coming back on the bus. But at the end of the day, it’s not about winning or losing (as cliché as it is). It’s about the people you meet and the bonds that are formed. It’s about knowing that at other tribal colleges, people are going through similar things that you are.

As sad as I am to have missed the conference this spring, I’m excited to hear the experiences of my peers and what they got out of the conference this year! And if you are a student who has yet to attend an AIHEC conference, I really encourage you to do so next spring because the people there and the energy that the students bring is second to none!

Scarlett Cortez is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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