A Profile From Pine Ridge: Keith Martinez

From Pine Ridge Reservation in SD to Scarsdale, NY onto Villanova University as a Presidential Scholar and a Gates Millennium Scholar

by Maggie Dunne and Cindy Dunne

DSC01268One afternoon three years ago, Keith Martinez was called to the front office of the Little Wound High School in Kyle, South Dakota, and an administrator asked him if he would be interested in participating in an intensive college preparation program in New York.

If selected and if he worked hard, after two years Keith could be positioned to attend a competitive college.

After a brief trip with his mother to New York for interviews and testing, Keith left the Pine Ridge Reservation to spend his junior and senior years at Scarsdale High School as a participant in the Student Transfer Education Program (STEP), a two-year program designed to give talented students from outside the community a boost to succeed in college.

Last month Keith graduated from the Scarsdale High School in New York. He will enter Villanova University in the fall of 2012 as a Presidential Scholar and a Gates Millennium Scholar. Villanova was one of 9 schools that offered Keith admission.

We caught up with Keith in May of 2012 in Scarsdale NY and asked him about his experience.

Keith was born in South Dakota and never knew his father. Keith spent his elementary school years between Georgia and New Mexico and settled on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 7th grade. Keith said that once he entered High School, he felt significant peer pressure not to devote any time or energy on schoolwork.

“When I entered ninth grade there were about 150 students in my grade and only 45 in the twelfth grade –- by the beginning of my sophomore year my class was only 79 students.  I always knew I wanted to go to college, and so I stayed in school, planned on graduating and hoped to go to college.”

On Pine Ridge Reservation Keith lived in a two-room trailer, with his siblings and his mother. The winter before he entered school in Scarsdale, the roof of his family’s trailer collapsed under the weight of four feet of snow and his family was scattered with relatives all over the Reservation as his mom searched for an alternative residence.

Scarsdale Bound
In the Fall of 2010, Keith entered one of the nation’s most competitive public schools in a community where students actively sought educational challenges and academic excellence was expected. Although he had been in the top quarter of his class at Little Wound, he estimates he was at least a year behind the students in Scarsdale.

Keith said of his academic adjustment: “I always knew that there were more challenging schools out there, but I had not experienced them before I came to Scarsdale.” Keith laughed about how quickly he had to develop study skills – his first week of school in Scarsdale, he “did homework until after midnight every night” – a routine he accepted but had never experienced before.

Keith said he “was surprised by how Scarsdale teachers always expected the best work product possible on every assignment, and also that they did not tolerate any excuses.” On the other hand, he found the teachers very willing to make themselves available before and after school to bring him up to speed if he was struggling with an assignment.

The hardest social adjustment Keith faced was the contrast between life on the Reservation and the wealthy suburbs of New York City:

“In Scarsdale homes are spacious and constructed to withstand the weather, technology ranging from computers, to flat screened TVs and cars are available everywhere, and there are lots of healthy food choices – I was used to wondering where the next meal would come from. I was really surprised to see so many High School students had their own cars — the contrast was a real adjustment.”

Keith lived with a family that welcomed him like one of their own and says of his host father (and role model), Brandon Steiner:

“He grew up in difficult circumstances, got a college education and built successful businesses and gives back to the community. He has stressed to me that anything is possible with hard work, and repeatedly reminded me to keep education and my studies as my top priority.”

Our Questions For Keith

How did you stay focused on your education and do so well in school?

“My education has always been a priority for me. My mom always told me that school is important and she wanted more than anything for me to have the chance to go to college – she always said that education opens doors for your future. I wanted to be that guy who succeeded and was able to do something with his education. I have younger brothers and I always tried to set a good example for my brothers so that they would also try hard in school.”

Are you glad that you participated in the STEP program?

“Yes, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Although it was hard at times, I kept reminding myself why I came here. Without the experience, I would not have set my sights so high. The hard work is not over though — I still have four years ahead of me and I am determined not to become a dropout statistic.I have seen friends obtain scholarships and then never finish college – I am determined to complete the process.”

If you could change one thing about schools on the Reservation, what would it be?

“I wish I could eliminate the apathy among some High School students and teachers. Most teachers start out very enthusiastic but after years of push-back from the students (who refuse to learn and often drop out when it gets challenging), they stop trying to reach the students  – it is a cycle that needs to change. I wish that students would realize that learning and studies are worthwhile, and that they would not give up or drop out when it gets challenging, but instead, seek help and keep trying.”

What studies are you looking forward to, and what are your goals for your education?

“I am excited to take classes in business. I want to get a degree in business and then return to Pine Ridge to help my community with business and community development. I want to be an entrepreneur and go home and help improve the Reservation.”

Do you have any advice for your peers?

“Don’t be afraid to set high goals, don’t abandon your goals — and don’t be afraid to ask for help – by asking for help when you need it, you stand a better chance of getting where you want to go. Believe in your abilities”

What can students on Pine Ridge learn from your experience?

“I hope that my example inspires students to take control over their futures, to set high goals and to resist the peer pressure to drop out or to reject education. I hope that they will respect my accomplishments and that my example will inspire them to go to college and to help our community. With hard work anything is possible.”

Keith has been an unofficial adviser to us over the last two years and now that he has graduated from High School he will become an official member of our Advisory Board.  We hope to periodically update you on our favorite college student as he adjusts to yet another chapter of life outside his comfort zone!

Inspired? You ought to be! Please join us in congratulating Keith Martinez on his tremendous accomplishments!

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