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Straightening the Path

March 15, 2010
by Erik Vance

Whitney Laughlin, Ed.D. ’93, has spent her life wandering in search of her tribe.

An avowed indigenous rights activist, Laughlin is founder of College Horizons and Graduate Horizons, which organize conferences to help Native American students prepare for college and graduate school. Taking a break from one such conference at Berkeley in July 2009, the empathetic and instantly likeable 57-year-old reminisced about her circuitous life path.

Laughlin’s childhood was heavily influenced by an Irish father who ran a New England textile mill. He was progressive in hiring the handicapped but made it clear that charity was not for everybody. “He never could quite extend the compassion for these physically disabled people to people who were marginalized in society,” such as people of color, she says. “His view was ‘They just needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps!’”

This attitude only radicalized his daughter, who hated the notion of “we have to dump on people below us, because we were dumped on.” She started college at Syracuse University in 1970. In her first year she attended protests and got arrested more than once. (Her father forbade her from dropping out to join César Chávez’s labor movement).

Then she went to New College of Florida where “a series of circumstances” led her and other female students to take over the president’s office. While there, her father called and threatened to cut her off if she didn’t back down. She hung up. “There I was at the age of 19, financially liberated I guess you might say,” she says, laughing.

Since then it has been a long road through Mayan villages, social work in South Boston, counseling students at a Hawaiian prep school, and decades working with Native-American tribes. “I’ve consistently felt more comfortable with communities of color than I have with people who look like me,” she says. Along the way, she picked up a bachelor’s degree (finally), two master’s degrees, and an Ed.D. from Berkeley.

Fittingly, this woman with her tortuous education is helping kids take a direct route to college. Laughlin says Native-American students often lack resources, connections, and guidance to navigate college applications and student aid. College Horizons bridges that gap with intensive four-day courses in which students write admission essays, learn how to pick up classes their school may not offer, and generally reframe their attitude. Students learn not only that they can manage the process, but that schools are often desperate to have them.

The program has hosted 1,600 high schoolers in 12 years. Of these, 95 percent went on to four-year schools—a third of them to the most selective colleges in the country. Eighty-five percent graduate in four to five years. The key, Laughlin says, is that at the conferences there are 1.5 adults (counselors, admissions officers, former graduates) for every student.

As for Laughlin, she eventually reconciled with her father, has curbed her nomadic lifestyle, and is working to pass College Horizons over to someone new. She acknowledges that no matter how she may empathize with people of color, she is an outsider and must forge her own sense of community. These days that may be in British Columbia. After she moved to Canada, a Navajo friend asked, “How is it living in Canada?” She said, “Well, I’ve found my tribe.”

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