It was a cold morning in January, fresh off the holidays. We were seated around a small table in a board room where my mentor had invited me to provide a student’s perspective to the proceedings. We had talked quite a bit about our projects—what we were doing and where we were hoping to go. They were good conversations, but it did not feel like we were moving toward our objective for the day, as a long, thoughtful silence fell over the room. My mentor stood up, grabbed a marker from the white board, and wrote this question on the board: “So what?”
This was the question that was meant to guide us forward. In the world of higher education, we often find ourselves grappling with pieces that don’t always seem to be part of the same puzzle. Sometimes these are abstract concepts and sometimes they are projects for internships or classes. Many students who are just trying to get through college will often breeze through these without questioning where they fit or why they’re doing them. But on occasion, some professionals do the same. And when you find yourself drifting a bit too far, sometimes it can be helpful to name the elephant in the room, to ask the question everyone thinks but is understood to be a bit too rude to ask out loud: So what? Why are we doing this? Who does this help? What does this teach us? When are we ever going to use this in real life?
These are valuable questions and, if I am being honest, I think they would be helpful to ask a bit more—internally, if nothing else. Stating the actual purpose of what you’re trying to do and—more to the point—why anyone, including you, should care about it can often be a way to recenter your thinking and bring you back to the path of progress.
One thing I have always found liberating about being an Indigenous student in Indian Country is that there’s always something to do. It is one of the benefits of our smaller populations relative to other sovereign nations. We don’t have the luxury of hoping someone else will do something—we have to do it, we get to it ourselves. As a result, I have yet to meet another Indigenous college student who doesn’t know why they are there. We generally do not enter college fumbling for purpose. The question “you’re going to school—so what?” is always there paired with an answer: So we can help our families. So we can inspire our children. So we can help build a nation. So we can become food sovereign. So we keep our languages alive. So we do something good for our grandchildren.
In the end, I think it always takes time to be able to see how the pieces of these puzzles fit together. The most valuable moments to me are those in which I am able to see how the seemingly unconnected things I have learned and the skills I have acquired come together in a puzzle specific to me. I feel like the Karate Kid and my tribal education, with all of its bold-faced questions, is my crane kick. But if you are able to reflect along the way, you come to the conclusion much sooner and clearer.
Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation.