SPEARFISH | Black Hills State University faculty and students are celebrating the success of one of their own during this — American Indian Awareness Week.

Meanwhile, Courtney Fischer, who grew up in Eagle Butte as an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is crediting her family back home and her mentors at BHSU with expanding her horizons and making her realize that she’s just getting started.

Fischer will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from BHSU. Then, she expects to enter a three-year doctoral program in physical therapy at Regis University in Denver or Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, the latter of which she checked out during her recent spring break.

“I want to be a physical therapist and work for an IHS (Indian Health Service) so I can give back,” said the soft-spoken 22-year-old who is easy with a smile. “Ultimately, I would absolutely love to help people and that’s what my career is all about. I want to become a contracted physical therapist who travels from place to place, perhaps on a scale even outside the U.S.”

Fischer got her start at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. But after just one semester, she said it didn’t feel right.

“It was not as homey as I expected,” the senior said. “I loved growing up in a small town and knowing everyone you drove by or saw at the store. That’s why I love Spearfish, because I definitely feel at home. It’s like living in a small town on a big scale.”

Fischer said a large part of that welcoming atmosphere was due to the directors of BHSU’s Center for American Indian Studies, an on-campus office with Native American staff that has effectively doubled graduation rates for Native students over the past 15 years.

“As soon as I stepped foot on campus, I joined the program and the center’s Dr. Urla Marcus and Rosie Sprague became my moms on campus,” said Fischer, who holds a 3.5 GPA. “Anything I needed academically — advising, getting me involved on campus, making connections — they were there for me. It definitely made being away from home and being a college student a heck of a lot easier. They made me feel like I knew everyone on campus and feel comfortable, which allowed me to do my best.”

The feeling is reciprocal.

“We’re just so proud of her,” said Sprague, the center's assistant director. “She is such a fine example of a young Native woman who came here, set her goals and met them. I think we’re going to see some great stuff from Courtney in the future.”

Sprague, who said BHSU’s Native students account for 7 to 8 percent of the total student body, are assisted by a half-dozen Native faculty members who understand what it’s like to leave the reservation to seek higher education and self-improvement. And, those family members left behind are among the most critical components of a student’s achievement, she added.

“Those students who are successful are highly likely to have that support group at home,” Sprague noted. “Parents who are educated are very helpful to students, and we find that many Native students who are successful have parents and even grandparents who are BHSU alumni.”

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That’s certainly the case in Fischer’s family.

Her mother, Donita, a BHSU graduate, works for Inter-Tribal Agriculture in Eagle Butte, while her father, Earp, is executive director of Tri-County Water/Mni Waste, where her brother, Scotty, also works. An older sister, Amanda, lives in Rapid City where she is employed at Black Hills Power.

“Family is such a part of our culture that leaving your grandparents, parents and little brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews behind, is still the toughest part and it’s what connects us and causes many of us to stay on the reservation,” Fisher said. “But growing up, my family support system made the difference and has been the biggest factor in my success.

“It was never a question of whether I was going to college,” she added. “I was always told you are going to college. I’ve gone to summer programs and classes and 4-H courses every summer since the fourth grade. I have had so many positive role models in my life and positive people who have helped me along life’s path.”

After having such a positive experience shadowing physical therapist Dr. Christopher Guggolz in Eagle Butte during an internship last summer, Fischer said she was extremely excited about the Sanford Health internship she was just awarded in Rapid City this summer.

Although she remained unsure of her specific assignment, Fischer said she would be working in the Center for Health Outcome Prevention Research’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, likely involving flaxseed research and childhood obesity issues.

“The fact that it’s flaxseed and childhood obesity will work hand-in-hand with my physical therapy courses and the other classes I’ve taken,” she said. “It will be neat to put all of that knowledge to use and it really excites me. Being a student for so many years, I’ll learn what it’s like in a career setting, doing research and helping people. It’s the big picture, putting it all together, and that’s pretty cool.”

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Northern Hills reporter for the Rapid City Journal.