Harvard Presents Alumni Award to Helen Klassen

Nov 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 15-2: Reclaiming Native Health, Tribal College News

OUTSTANDING ALUMNUS. Dr. Helen Klassen defied the odds to earn her current status as an Harvard honoree. Photo by Jeff Hamley

The Harvard Graduate School of Education has recognized Dr. Helen Klassen’ s devotion to helping individuals from impoverished communities access opportunity through education. Harvard awarded the 2003 Alumni Council Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education at a ceremony in June in Cambridge, MA. An Ojibwa tribal member who grew up on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, Klassen is the president of White Earth Tribal and Community College. The Bush Foundation had awarded her a leadership fellowship to attend Harvard where she earned her master’s in 1993 and her doctorate in Human Development and Psychology in 1996.

From an early age, Klassen acquired firsthand lessons in of human psychology in clashes with authority. She and her friends walked out of their local high school after she confronted the high school principal about racism in the school instruction, she said. Then they taught themselves, passed the GED, and she convinced Moorhead State College to admit her at the age of 17. She completed her bachelor’s at the age of 20.

Last spring, she survived a battle with the White Earth Tribal Council, which fired her. The tribal court overturned the decision, saying the college is a “separate, independently chartered educational organization” governed by its own board of trustees.

Klassen helped start the college in 1997 after turning down a position in the Harvard president’s office. “It was not satisfying. I had a sense of loneliness and lacked joy in my life there,” she said. White Earth Tribal and Community College opened its doors in Mahnomen, MN, in October 1997 and now has eight faculty members, a number of adjunct instructors, 60 full-time students, 60 part-time students, and 200 students in Adult Basic Education, according to an article in the Park Rapids Enterprise. It serves about 200 high school students.

Klassen is one of several tribal members from the reservation who graduated from Harvard, according to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her sister, Erma Vizenor, also received a doctorate from Harvard; Winona LaDuke, the Green Party vice presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, received her bachelor’s from Harvard; the late Jerry Buckanaga received his master’s; Anita Fineday, tribal judge, received her master’s; Willow Lawson, editor of Psychology Today, received her bachelor’s; and Yvonne Novak received her master’s. Several others from White Earth attended Harvard, according to the article. At least 12 people with Harvard connections have considered White Earth to be home. The writer found this especially surprising since less than three percent of the American Indian population has diplomas from any four-year college.

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