United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee
Tammy knows from experience what a helping hand can do to change a life.
Tammy, who grew up in Missouri, was always a good student but never thought of going to college. “Nobody in my family had even gone to college and I seriously didn’t think it was an option for me, because it was not an option for many people around me. Where I come from the idea of college was not real for me, and wasn’t until my mother made it real for me," she says.
Tammy attended a boarding school off the reservation in Oklahoma. While a student there, her guidance counselor saw that she had good grades and was college material. Her counselor approached her mother with the idea of Tammy going to college.
“We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and my parents worked hard at back-breaking jobs for very little money. My mom worked at a chicken processing plant. It was not a nurturing environment, it was not interesting work to her, and it did not pay a lot, but it was the only job she could find and she took it. She worked there for 30 years doing a job she didn’t like because she loved us and wanted to provide for us,” Tammy says.
So when Tammy graduated from high school, her mother asked her what she was going to do. Tammy says she wanted to take a year off and get a job and go to school later. “I just wanted that immediate return. I wanted spending money and that to me would mean that I had made it and I was successful. I was broke and I looked at college and didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. I didn’t want to be broke for the next four years, and I couldn’t see how I would succeed. I thought making $200 a week would mean I had made it. I was 17 or 18 years old and thought I knew everything,” Tammy says.
Yet her mother knew more about the world from her years of hard work in the factory. “My mother tricked me,” she says. “She told me, ‘If you come to work with me for three months and you make it, you can decide what you want to do with the rest of your life, but if you can’t make it three months, then I get to decide what you do for the next four years,’ ” Tammy says. “After the first week I knew I didn’t want to do that,” she says, “and I knew I wanted to go to college. Mom was trying to show me the opportunities I had. I made it three months, but I still wanted to go to college.”
Tammy credits her guidance counselor and her mother for “conspiring on my behalf.” They completed an application for her to attend Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and her mother and father scraped together enough money for her to attend college that first semester.
“My parents would do anything to help me, but they didn’t have the financial means to do so,” Tammy says. “There was so much uncertainty when I went to college and what would happen after that first semester was a leap of faith.” She applied for an American Indian College Fund scholarship and got it. After that, she received scholarships every semester from the Fund. “The American Indian College Fund scholarships paid for the rest of my school,” she says. “I wouldn’t have gone to college without them.”
After earning her associate’s degree in tribal management, she transferred to the University of Kansas, which allowed graduates of Haskell to attend and pay in-state tuition. Just 12 credits shy of graduating with her bachelor’s degree, a family emergency took Tammy back home to Oklahoma to help her parents. “I moved home with the plan of returning to college in a year, but life intervened and I was there for three years.”
Needing money, Tammy applied for an entry-level invoice clerk job at Wal-Mart. “I never planned to stay, but the company won me over,” she says. “After working there for a year I realized I wanted to be there, not for a paycheck, but for a career.”
“Since I hadn’t finished my degree I started meeting with leadership about where I wanted to go in the company and asked them to help me map a path to get there. They put me on that path,” she says. Wal-Mart helped her finish her bachelor’s degree and today she is working towards earning a master’s degree in business administration through American Public University.
Tammy credits Wal-Mart for giving her “tons of opportunity to move up from one position to the other…the day I was promoted into a management position, I went back to my mom and showed her my offer letter. She broke down crying. She never thought that anyone in our family or our world would have that opportunity. My parents worked themselves to death but never saw us getting ahead,” she says, crediting her education at Haskell for opening doors for her at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart leadership also encouraged her to stay involved with Indian Country. Seven years ago she and a co-worker founded the Native Voices Resource group for Native associates and those who want to find ways for Wal-Mart to make a positive impact with Indian people and communities. As part of the group, Tammy has found a way to give back to Haskell. The group works with juniors and seniors there every semester to prepare them for their job searches and job interviews. They conduct mock interviews, workshops on working in a corporate culture as a Native, and more.
This year Tammy says the group has introduced a new program in which they are connecting Haskell students with Wal-Mart leadership for mentoring opportunities. The group also helps Wal-Mart leadership with questions about Indian Country, “giving Indian Country a voice within Wal-Mart,” she says.
“My husband and I try to give back as much as possible because we want to help people like we were helped,” Tammy says. “Everything good in my life came from my foundation at Haskell,” she notes, “My friends, my resources, my education.” She laughs as she adds that she met her husband there, with whom she adopted a young boy from her tribe. “Haskell helped give me not only a good education, but as a result, a good job that has allowed me the opportunity to now have my parents next door and be able to take care of them as their primary caregivers, helping them when they need it. It has had a huge impact on my life. I have had so many opportunities and perspectives as a result,” she says.
Tammy is busy learning as many aspects of the business at Wal-Mart that she can. She has worked as a sales clerk, in accounting, in human resources, in human resource analytics, and budgeting. Ultimately she would like to work for the Wal-Mart Foundation. “I am really enjoying human resources; the impact that I have on associates’ lives is personally rewarding because every day I feel like my work is benefiting others. I can’t imagine anything better.”