Lonnie (Sicangu Lakota) completed the next big step on his path as a leader by enrolling in law school. After serving two years as the only American Indian with the Youth and Family Services Policy Council as treasurer and member of the Board of Directors, Lonnie realized, “Leaders must be willing to take on tasks that allow them to step outside of their comfort zone in order to assist others. Leaders also have a responsibility to be a voice for those who are not often heard.”
Lonnie grew up on the reservation, where he pursued leadership roles and opportunities, including involvement in Scientific Knowledge for Indian Learning and Leadership programs (SKILL) from sixth through twelfth grade. He credits the program for inspiring him to attend South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where he earned a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering. There he served as the president of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
But it wasn't always easy. Lonnie recounts, “I like to take the modest approach and say that like everyone I had and will be faced with problems that seem to have no solution or end in sight. I have come to understand that although it may take several tries to reach your goals, with determination they will eventually be reached.”
Lonnie had a bumpy road his sophomore year. A family member died, he became a father at the age of 20, and he was juggling a full academic load while working full-time washing dishes and delivering pizzas. After being put on academic probation and losing a full-ride scholarship, he says, “To me it was the end. I was frustrated and scared.” During that time, he received a paycheck and realized how little financial reward there was for his hard work. “I thought that there had to be a better way to live. It was at that moment that I quit my job and went back to school,” he says.
“I approached school with a renewed sense of accomplishment and vigor,” Lonnie says. “I started to make goals, achieving them more and more often. I also became more involved with student organizations and started giving back to the people that had helped to shape my success. I made the Dean's list at one of the nation's toughest engineering schools, was nominated to the leadership hall of fame twice, and made the golf team. Next, I landed a couple of meaningful internships, which ultimately led to my graduation. Like everyone on this earth, I had been through the ringer of life, and got through it."
Two internships included working for the South Dakota Legislature and internships in Washington, D.C. with the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth. While in D.C. Lonnie took summer courses in Native Law at American University. “I was so interested in many of the cases that we read that I wanted to become more involved. It was at this point that I knew I wanted to attend law school,” he says. “Pursuing a law degree will provide me with the resources necessary to become an influential voice whose main objective is to help Native Americans.”
Now completing his first year of law school at the University of South Dakota, Lonnie says, “I learned that it's how you reach to the things that happened to you that will determine failure or success. Distressing situations also help to develop the skills and mindset that you can draw on to get you through future troubling situations.”